Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Culture Shock

As you know, I have been living in Italy for a whole two weeks now - I am a veteran, practically - and since friends keep asking me how things are, I am writing this entry. I will not dwell on the regular stuff; this is a hill region, close to the mountains so you can see them on the horizon, but not really mountainous. I am stationed right between the villages of Ispra and Cadrezzate and working 10 walking minutes from where I live. I don't really have anything else to say about the region, it's not that interesting. What I did find interesting are the differences in culture between this place in Italy and Romania. For starters, it seems the northern part of Italy is - proudly - different in culture from the rest of Italy as well.

Pizza, for example, is something that I find hard to understand. In this region close to Milan they make pizza like a sort of prosciutto, very thin. But it's a weird and cumbersome thin, since the outer crust is hard and brittle, while the interior is soft. That means that one cannot cut it easily unless the knife is very sharp, one cannot roll it up like a shawarma or doner kebab, since the margins break and the content of the pizza is not really bound to the dough, so it falls down, and one cannot hold a slice in hand because the core is soft. The way I found works best for me is to cut it into thick ribbons, then kind of compressing them with the fork so that you get several layers of rectangular pizza that you can put into the mouth and chew. I've also tried folding the pizza, so that it becomes a sort of quarter pizza of regular thickness, but that soft core makes it rather difficult to manage and often the ingredients tend to try to escape from the sides when you bite on the thing. Another difference in pizza culture is that they don't use tomato sauce on the pizza, they barely use any in the pizza anyway, instead pouring oil, spiced or not, over it. In my mind a pizza is made out of dough, tomato paste and cheese. They use little tomato paste and, since they feel the need to put oil on it, they probably use little cheese as well.

Coffee. Italians love their coffee, which they call espresso. It's a (pinky) finger thick layer of coffee, which they savor for the taste of it, then get back to work. My colleagues have this ritualized fixed hour coffee breaks, about two or three a day. They also have something called a lungo coffee, which means tall in Italian. This coffee is about two pinky fingers thick, but not quite. To get a full (small plastic) cup of coffee from the machine here, one has to ask for a cappuccino, which is a normal coffee with a lot of milk foam. Apparently they don't have anything like Starbucks in Italy; market research showed that they would not be successful. A mug of coffee is as abhorrent to Italians as a pint of palinka would be for a Romanian. Actually, some Romanians would not mind... Also, while this espresso thingie is small, it only concentrates the taste, as far as I can see, since I feel almost no caffeine effect.

Alcohol. Italians need to have beer with pizza. Drinking anything else, like wine or - God forbid - Coca Cola, is uncouth. However a half a liter of beer is in any bar at least 4 euros. Usually it is tasty, so it's probably a little higher end than a Romanian beer, but consider that in my country a beer is as expensive as mineral water. In comparison a glass of grappa (a grape brandy that seems to be the most alcoholic beverage they have) is about 3 euros. I don't know yet, but it might be that wine is as cheap here, if not more so, than beer. And speaking of wine, they don't have a clear marking on their wine bottles specifying the sweetness of the contents. Worse, I've bought a "secco" bottle of wine which was sweet as honey (this is bad for wine). At first I refrained from buying Chianti, because the name sounded sweet. But no, that's the good wine, apparently, while most wines in Lombardy as crap - lucky me. There are other wines here, as well, but you must know them. It is good that my colleagues are well versed in the alcoholic arts. Apparently in Italy you are allowed to have some blood alcohol content while driving, the equivalent of a having drunk a beer or so. But they don't check for it anyway, so it is customary to drive to a bar, eat and drink there, then drive back. Drinking at work doesn't seem to be a problem either.

Coperto. Sometimes translated as service on the bill, the coperto is the price of staying at a table, having a paper towel and using their utensils. At first I thought they were trying to rip me off, as in Romania we don't have a tax per place - strangely so, I would expect establishment owners to want to encourage people staying in, rather than making them pay for it. Italians don't really tip, though, as the coperto and the price of the food includes the tip. As a comparison, in Romania we habitually tip around 10-15%; not doing so sending a message that we are either cheap or that we disliked the service.

Services are very expensive. If the prices in a supermarket seem similar to ours, anything one does for you seems overpriced to me. I know it's a perception issue that I have and I must adjust it, but still when I got an offer to wash and iron my shirts with 4.5 euros each, I thought they were kidding. Luckily I found a Romanian speaking woman who will do all the work and not give me these insane prices, so maybe the price of service only seems high because I don't know where to find it, yet.

What else? There are no stray dogs or cats that I could see in the area. That's something I miss, actually. In Bucharest there are a lot of dogs and cats. Unfortunately scare tactics in the media and politics will probably lead to them being killed in the name of "progress" and "Europeisation". I did see squirrels and wild rabbits around here, though. Everybody moves around in a car or a bicycle. Not having either makes me the odd fruit in the tree. When I told them I don't even have a driver's licence my colleagues were flabbergasted. Italians don't shake hands when they see each other every day, so when I came to work the first few days and went to everybody to shake, they got freaked a little. I still haven't gone to Milan yet, but I went there to visit and work when I was employed in an Italian company, so I know the city is nice, but the culture is similar. No dogs there, either.

That's about it for now. More to come soon.