Sunday, August 11, 2013

Drive Your Italian Hosts Crazy #1: Disrespecting Mealtimes

The rest of of the world views Italy as a weirdly-shaped peninsula whose inhabitants live without the least concern for rules, responsibility, or noise levels. As an Italian, I must admit that is exactly how we see ourselves, and proudly, too.

Do you want to know the truth, though? Everybody is wrong. Italian behavior is actually regulated by a myriad of rules concerning each and every aspect of life. The words we say when we enter or leave a store, the body language we use on a crowded bus, the formalities in making a phone call before dinnertime, the good wishes we express to a friend: All need to follow specific and accepted ways, and any variation will most certainly cause an anxiety attack. The only reason we still consider ourselves adorable anarchists is that all of these rules are unspoken, and we discover their depth only when we live abroad for more than two years (FACT).

In this series, I'll go through some of these unspoken rules so that you, my American friends, can learn to understand our panic and, if you care, prevent it.

Rule #1: Italians eat only at mealtimes. 

This seems normal enough, but what I really mean is that Italians do not deal well with the idea of a lunch or dinner that does not happen at designated times. Here are sample mealtimes for Northern Italians*:

4pmSnack (only for kids, really)

What happens when an American comes to visit, though? Well, let me tell you about my personal experience with yet another handy table:

7—8amBreakfastDrinks an espresso.Drinks an espresso, eats a small breakfast.
10am (Not a mealtime)Asks for a second espresso and a ham sandwich.Drinks espresso, orders small sandwich, fears lunch appetite is ruined.
12—1:30pmLunchRefuses lunch, prefers sightseeing.Represses hunger pains, dreams about pasta.
4pmSnackAsks for a snack, preferably savory and local. Or, massive gelato.Eats small gelato, fears dinner appetite is ruined.
7—9pmDinnerTakes shower.Feels moderate hunger pains, wonders when dinner might be.
9:30pm (Not a mealtime)Demands a pizza and has plans for wine, appetizers, and dessert, too.Eats a Margherita, pleads with waiter to delay mopping the floor with bleach until drunken guest is done with frozen tiramisu.

As you can see, the natural Italian sense of hospitality allows our American guests to have his or her own dream vacation—which is actually a total mirage—while the Italian host's metabolism and emotional wellbeing become severely compromised. It's a failure on all fronts.

So, my suggestion is: Let your hosts be the guide of your meals and do not trust them when they politely ask what you would like to eat. You don't know what you want. They do.

*Geography affects mealtimes considerably. In the Austrian Alps, it is common for restaurant kitchens to close at 8:30pm ON A WEEKEND, whereas in happy Sicily dinner may not happen before 10pm. I'm from Venice, so I'll write about what I know.


  1. Replies
    1. Grazie, Emigrante! (Detta cosi' sembra un po' classista, no?)

  2. Right on! Don't forget the constant snacking, "just 'cos!" and the funniest excuse for it: Low blood sugar!

    1. Yeah, constant snacking is forbidden. THOU SHALT NOT RUIN YOUR APPETITE!!!