Why I didn’t love Italy
Italy has to be on everyone’s travel shortlist — and, for a long time, it was on mine as well. It’s a destination like Paris or London or Tokyo that fills people with wonder and has an iconic feeling thanks to Hollywood and everyone’s brag-worthy Insta shots.
I can’t say why we hadn’t made it to Italy yet. We’ve been working our way through Europe country-by-country, mainly as add-ons to my work trips. There are other places I’ve gravitated towards first because they have been a bit higher on my list. We also took a massive three-week trip in 2013, and while we went to Portugal and Spain, Italy didn’t make the cut.
But I happened to have a work trip to Zurich for The Company in December, and since we did Denmark and Sweden the following year in November and froze to death, we decided to go south this trip and finally check Italy off of the list.
Italy was disappointing.
That’s not a popular sentiment. I’m dear friends with many Italophiles, and I love them and trust their opinions, but I’ve since learned that I don’t have to love all destinations equally. And Italy just isn’t my jam.
I tried to break this down into broader categories, and I realized that there are a few things that I look for when I travel:
Order: If we think about a continuum from order to chaos, I’m a lover of order. I find that chaotic places can be somewhat anxiety-triggering, but beyond that I find a smoother travel experience when it’s easy to get from A to B and when people know how to queue in lines in an orderly fashion. Even if it’s not the structure that I know, I’m happy to stand back and observe the rules and adapt to them.
Politeness: A close cousin to order is the politeness of the people in individual interactions. Are people open and kind? Do they hold doors, try to stay quieter at night, or stand up to give seats on transit for expectant mothers? When you treat someone with respect, do they respond in kind?
Warmth: How welcome do you feel, even if you are different? Do people welcome you into their lives and their families? One country that feels incredibly warm to me is Mexico — just pull up a chair and join the family! You are welcome no matter who you are and feel that people genuinely care about you.
History/Culture/Stuff to Do: This is actually the easiest requirement of all because I find so many things interesting! I can find something interesting in almost any place.
[Note: One huge exception here is camping. I don’t camp. I hate it and I refuse to spend my vacation doing something I can’t stand. So if camping is the attraction, or the accommodation, I’m out.]
So when I step back and think about my favorite trips I’ve ever taken, it’s not surprising that they would score highly across the board. If I were to rate my favorites, the top three thus far are Australia, Austria, and Hawai’i. Each of these is quite different, with different things that attract me, and each has their own detractions (scary creatures, weather, humidity, excess sand, etc.), but they are places that have a good orderliness, polite and warm people, and interesting cultural sites and activities.
The big attraction to Italy was the culture and the history. It’s the freakin’ Roman empire — how amazing to visit a society that was such a powerhouse for a thousand years! So when I think about the highlights of our visit to Rome and Florence, these cultural attractions made the biggest impression on us.
But Italy did not score so well in the categories of order, politeness, and warmth. Whenever I mention this to an Italophile they express one of two things. First, they might express regret that I didn’t experience the Italy that they love (one dear friend said, “Well, by the fifth or sixth time Italy is amazing!” which made me laugh that I’d have to do four more trips like this to discover the charm of the place). And I can see that this could be true because there were pockets of warmth. There was the amazing B&B host in Florence who gave us a mini walking tour around the B&B and kept adding recommendations to our map (to the point that I kept feeling bad that he was taking up so much time). We had some very kind servers at some of the restaurants in Rome, especially those we visited in the Jewish quarter.
But this was not a country filled with politeness or order. It felt a lot like Portugal — a city that was once great but that was, quite literally, in decay. I found the Italians en masse to be loud, pushy (literally) and rude. Sometimes their aggression is well-served — say, in the way that they drive — but in other cases it just seemed misplaced.
I have some empathy for what Romans must experience, living in a city that every idiot tourist in the world wants to visit. They tromp off of their air-conditioned coaches in khaki shorts and big white tennis shoes, stopping in the center of the sidewalk to unfurl their maps or position their selfie sticks. I get it. These are the same idiots that show up in Seattle in June, July, and August.
What frustrates the crap out of me is that we work very, very hard to not be that kind of tourist. I’ve found that learning some of the local language can be incredibly helpful. I’ll never forget my first trip to France with some friends. One of them refused to say “Bonjour” when we entered shops, instead saying “HI!” in a super-American accent. Greetings are one of the simplest ways to show respect of other cultures — it doesn’t take more than 30 minutes to learn five basic phrases in a language, and now that we have the Internet, there’s no excuse!
When it came to Italian, I spent two months learning a bit more than the basics on DuoLingo. Yes, it did help a little, but in most cases it helps grease the skids for moments of connection. Not in Italy. Not at all.
Two other simple adjustments we make when we travel is in the way that we dress and the way that we behave in public. If you’ve ever been on a train in Germany or a flight in Sweden you’ll notice how quietly people converse, mindful of the shared spaces that they are in. These are places where one doesn’t need to draw attention to oneself through behavior or dress. Dressing for the road is actually rather simple — we wear clothing that is classic and plain, or in muted patterns (like stripes, small checks, or small florals). We ditch the clothes with words and jokes and logos to go for the pan-European look. Because of how we look physically people are often unsure where we’re from (no one ever guesses Mexico for Sergio!), and because of this we can “pass” for different nationalities. The best compliment to me when traveling in Europe is for someone to think I am Swiss or German (but I’ll take Canadian!), and I take a lot of joy when I say that I am American — just one who is considerate in other countries!
All of this amounted to nothing in Italy. No amount of blending behavior worked at all. Maybe that’s because we weren’t blending with the culture? But even if you can’t blend, I had hoped there would be some appreciation that we weren’t obnoxious.
In the end, I think my experience of traveling in Italy was very much like my travels to New York City. It’s not popular to say this, but I’m not a fan of NYC. Sure — there are lots of things to do and see. I love the museums and the shows and the food. But it entirely lacks in charm and warmth, not to mention trees (I’ll give Rome this — they do have some trees here and there).
One last note, and that’s food. Food might be the fifth category, if there is one. My opinion on food has changed since I’ve modified my diet (no dairy plus I follow a modified version of the FODMAP diet) — I’m interested in the local cuisine, but in some countries the choice foods aren’t something I can eat. Italy is a great example — most pizza and pasta is covered in cheese, a big no-no for me.
I admit that we sinned big one night and had lasagna, which was delicious and worth the stomachache. Italian food was good, but since it’s widely available, there wasn’t much about it that felt so special that I could only get it there. This is different than some other cuisines where it is very difficult to get authentic cuisine outside of the place. Have you ever had amazing barramundi in the US? What about perfect shave ice outside of Hawai’i? Or flødeboller outside of Scandinavia? Or perfect spaetzle and strudel outside of Bavaria?
So that’s that. Italy turned out to be a bit of a bomb for me. We don’t have any upcoming work trips planned to Europe, but we do have a big trip planned in the spring! For something completely different, we’re going to Norway, Estonia, and Finland! To say that I’m excited is an understatement. A fair bit of my heritage is Norwegian (with a bit of Swedish and Finnish thrown in for luck), so I’m excited to visit Norway in particular. We’ve also visited both Denmark and Sweden, and while the Scandinavians aren’t the warmest people when you first meet them, those countries score off-the-charts on order, politeness, and history! I’m going to start learning basic Norwegian phrases next month!
Ciao for now, Sarah