How to tell if you're an Italian
by Riccardo Distasi
The latest response to the American culture test. Riccardo is from Naples, and splits his energies
between computer science (he works at the Università di
Salerno) and music-- he has his own jazz combo and writes and
arranges music for ensembles of various sizes. His hobbies include languages, cooking, reading, and movies. The latest American movie he really liked: Magnolia; the latest European one: Merci pour le chocolat.
If you're Italian...
- You're familiar with Pippo Baudo, Mike Bongiorno, Raffaella
Carrà, Maurizio Costanzo, gli Antenati (the Flintstones), i
Simpson, Topolino & Paperino (Mickey & Donald), Fonzie, Derrick,
- You know the ins & outs of calcio (football, although
the Americans like to call it 'soccer'). If you're male, you probably
deem yourself entitled to give advice to the coach of the National Team.
You like Formula I, too. It is plain to see that Ferrari is tops. You
know about tennis and basket. Baseball, cricket? Ooh, yes, you've seen
baseball in movies. People hit balls with sticks and then they run.
- You get about 30 days of vacation a year, most of which are in August.
- You're fairly likely to believe in God, at least in some personal
way. You don't go to church much, and your mother isn't too happy about
- You think of McDonald's, Burger King, KFC etc. as cheap, fast food.
There are better (tastier, healthier) alternatives for about the same
- You own a telephone and a TV. You possibly have one or more mobile
phone numbers. Your place is heated in the winter and has its own
bathroom. You do your laundry in a machine. You don't kill your own
food. You don't have a dirt floor. You eat at a table, sitting on
As piovra cruda, it sounds good
- You don't consider insects, dogs, cats, monkeys, or guinea pigs to
be food. However, depending on where you live, snails, frogs, horses,
donkeys, rabbits, raw octopus and nettles are considered delicacies.
- A bathroom may have either a bathtub or a shower in it, and it
certainly has a toilet and a bidet.
- The telephone system, the mail, railroads, and power companies used
to be state-owned, but now they are privately held. The government
maintains varying degrees of control through a combination of ordinary
and/or "golden" shares and regulation powers. They say competition will
push prices down, but you didn't notice much improvement.
- You expect, as a matter of course, that the phones will work.
Getting a new phone is routine.
- The train system isn't too bad. It's getting too costly though:
sometimes as much as a plane.
- You find a two-party system unnatural and restrictive, although some
say it's the only way to go. The electoral law was supposed to turn your
political system into a two-party competition, but you split your votes
wisely in order to preserve an interesting multitude of parties or
"party currents." Democracy is about representation, after all, and
you'd like to be represented with some degree of precision.
Well, property is theft
- Socialism used to be respectable, when the Socialist party was run
by anti-fascist heroes rather than a bunch of thieves. Now there are
representatives calling themselves "Socialists" and sitting with the
right-wing philo-fascist party. Communists still exist and
represent more or less 10% of the electorate, but sometimes you think
they're slightly out of touch with reality.
- People may be Black, Yellow, "Marocchini" (from Maghreb), Albanian,
Slavic, Rom (Gypsy). A child with one black and one white parent would
probably look black to you, but you never really saw one. Then there are
various flavors of white European and Extra-EU foreigners (German,
American, Swiss) and various flavors of Italians (basically, North,
Center and South).
- You think most problems could be solved if only people would put
aside their prejudices and work together.
- You take a strong court system for granted. You know that if you
went into business and had problems with a customer, partner, or
supplier, you could take them to court, but it would take quite a long
time to obtain justice. On the other hand, criminal justice can often be
eluded if you are powerful and rich enough. As a last resort, get
elected and write your own laws!
- You'd respect someone who speaks fluent English or German. Japanese
is black magic. You probably speak at least some English, if you're
under 30. Spanish is easy to understand (if they are kind enough to
speak slowly) and easy to fake (just stick random "s" sounds alla fines
dellas parolas). French and Portuguese aren't as easy.
- It's a Good Thing to learn foreign languages, but if you know
your basic English you get around nearly everywhere. They'll speak
at least a little Spanish, won't they? As a last resort,
you can always use your hands for gestures.
- If you live on fixed wages, you think a tax level of 50% for high
incomes is reasonable; after all, the high income guys make much more
than you, even after taxes. But taxes should be paid by
everybody-- not only by fixed-income workers as it is now. If, on the
other hand, you run your own business, you think the tax level is way
too high and do anything you legally can to avoid paying what's due. You
probably even do something you shouldn't.
- School is free through high school (at least, it's an option, even
if you went to private school). University isn't that cheap, but not
prohibitively dear either. Books are dear from sixth grade up.
- University is (normally, and excluding graduate study) four years long.
Medicine and engineering are longer.
- Mustard? Ah, mustard. Fairly exotic stuff. It comes in plastic
bottles (or small bags at McDonald's). Peeled tomatoes (pelati)
come in cans. Shaving cream comes in cans. Milk comes in plastic jugs or
- The date comes first: 25/4/1945. (And you know what happened on that
- The decimal point is a comma, but computer guys and tech-heads often
use a dot.
- A thousand million is called a miliardo. A bilione
is a million times a million, you think, but mille miliardi is
- World War II was a quite troubled time for the country, with
Fascists and Germans all around the place. The US helped to rebuild
the country, but the price was that they remote-controlled our politics.
- You expect marriages to be made for love, not arranged by third
parties. You get married by the Mayor, but most people like a church
ceremony. You have a best man and a maid or matron of honor at the
wedding--a friend or a sibling. And, naturally, a man gets only one wife
at a time.
- If a man has sex with another man, he's a homosexual. Whether homosexual
couples should have civil rights is a thorny issue.
- Once you're introduced to someone, as a general rule you don't call
them by their first name and don't use the direct tu pronoun to
address them, unless it is an informal setting.
- If you're a woman, you can go to the beach topless--you'll draw a
few looks if you're in good shape, otherwise why are you doing that?
- A hotel room has a private bath.
- Foreign films are dubbed by real actors. You often recognize who is
doing the dubbing by his/her voice.
- You seriously expect to be able to transact business, or deal with
the government, without political backing? Hehe... As for actual bribes,
they are getting to be rarer.
- Politicians aren't usually found cheating on their spouses. If it
happens, you probably wouldn't care at all. In most cases, you don't
even care if they are caught stealing public money.
- Large stores and most restaurants and hotels will take your credit
card. Small stores will be fussier, especially if you don't spend much
or if you buy articles on special sale.
- State-owned companies and the public administration can't fire just
anybody they want. Privately owned companies can't, either, but things
- You don't eat bacon, but sometimes you do eat pancetta,
which is similar. It appears in the Bucatini all'Amatriciana, a
- Labor Day is the First of May.
Aiutami, Don Obi-wan!
- You've probably seen Guerre stellari, ET, Ladri di biciclette,
Titanic and La vita è bella. If you're under
forty, add Lo squalo, Rocky/Rambo #N, and 2001:
Odissea nello spazio; otherwise, add Via col vento, Psycho,
Poveri ma belli, Don Camillo and I soliti ignoti.
- You know the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Michael
Jackson, the U2, Madonna, Claudio Baglioni, Laura Pausini, Vasco Rossi,
Eros Ramazzotti and Jovanotti. If not, you know at least Frank Sinatra,
Louis Armstrong, Claudio Villa, Mina, Domenico Modugno, Gianni Morandi
and Adriano Celentano.
- You count on excellent medical treatment. You know you're not going
to die of cholera or other Third World diseases. You expect very strong
measures to be taken to save very ill babies or people in their
eighties. You think dying at 65 would be a tragedy. This is changing,
they say. Privatization will make the system more efficient (and
merciless, you suspect).
- You went over Greek, Roman, Italian and European history in school.
Some US history, too, starting from Cristoforo Colombo. Some Russian,
but no Asian or Latin American.
- You expect the military to defend peace, not get involved in
politics. You aren't able to name one of the capi di Stato
Maggiore (Heads of service). Military conscription is a thing of
the past: the army is now a force of volunteers.
- Your country has been invaded several times in different areas.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, it was reunited into one country
only in the 19th century (apart from Charlemagne, who was an invader
- You're used to a wide variety of choices for almost anything you
- You measure things in meters, kilos and liters.
- You can tell with good approximation the region someone comes from
by the dialectal inflections in the language. Even the town, if it's
close enough to you.
Maybe an Italian invented the Keystone Kops?
- You are not a farmer.
- Comics basically come in two varieties: newspaper comics and
magazines/albums; the latter range from Japanese manga to American
comics. There's plenty of Italian comics: Diabolik and Dylan Dog
(action-oriented), Altan (satyrical), Manara and Crepax
- The people who appear on the most popular talk shows are mostly
entertainers, politicians, or rather strange individuals, including
people from academia that are either entertainer or politician wannabees
(or both). Football players are regulars, too, but they are generally
unable to say anything remarkable, despite their popularity.
- Most artists, film directors, intellectuals, scientists, magistrates
and pop stars are sympathetic with the left wing. Most merchants, small
and big entrepreneurs, self-employed people and convicted former or
present politicians have a soft spot for the right wing. Young kids, they
mostly haven't got a clue.
- You drive on the right side of the road. You stop at red lights even
if nobody's around. Usually. If you're a pedestrian and cars are stopped
at a red light, you will fearlessly cross the street in front of them.
If they are approaching the green (or red) lights, however, it gets a
little tricky. Will they stop?
- You consider the Volkswagen Beetle to be a medium-sized car.
- The police are armed, but not with submachine guns.
- If a woman is plumper than the average, it doesn't improve her looks.
- The biggest meal of the day is in the evening.
- You make jokes about the Carabinieri (one of the Police
forces, the military one). These jokes are virtually identical to
English jokes on the Irish or French jokes on the Belgians.
- There's parts of the city you definitely want to avoid at night.
Down with the Roman Empire!
- You feel that your kind of people aren't being listened to enough in
Rome. If you are from the North and run your own business, you
probably think Rome has way too much power.
- You wouldn't expect both inflation and unemployment to be very high
(say, over 15%) at the same time. Unemployment alone is quite another matter,
especially in some Southern areas.
- You don't care very much what family someone comes from. Unless he dates
your daughter, that is.
- The normal thing, when a couple dies, is for their estate to be
divided equally between their children.
- If you're over 50, you know arias from a few operas
and sing along when you hear them. However, given the current ticket
prices, you still think of opera and ballet as rather elite
entertainments. It's likely you don't see that many plays, either.
- Changing your name is very difficult. It takes a lot of paperwork,
as you need to convince the authorities that you have a good reason to
change your name.
- Christmas is in the winter. You spend it with your family, give
presents, and put up a tree or a presepe, a representation of
the Nativity with Giuseppe & Maria, the ox & the donkey, the Mages,
and, of course, the newly born child, who is not put in place before
- If you live in the Center, the Church was the State
- You have never heard of Creationism. If you have, you think it's a
fairy tale, and much less amusing than others at that.
- You'd be hard pressed to name the leaders of all the
nations of Europe. The capitals are easy though.
- You are familiar with Dylan Dog, Tex Willer, Diabolik, Altan, Corto
Maltese, Milo Manara and Guido Crepax. Gotlib and Moebius are less
- You've left a message at the beep.
- Taxis are generally operated by locals, who are usually
knowledgeable about the city.
- You think that Social Security should help the less lucky people, but
it often gets abused, which is a Bad Thing. You would not be in favor of
eliminating Social Security and Medical Assistance, however.
- If you want to be a doctor, you need to get a laurea
(master's) degree first, and most likely a postgraduate specialization
degree if you really want to find a job.
- You are proud of Italian cuisine, wines, Ferraris and fashion
designers. Furthermore, Italian pop music is the only one worth a listen
here in the EU (apart from the UK, of course). And then there are Rome,
Florence, Pompei, Venice, Capri ...
Space and time
- If you have an appointment, you'll mutter an excuse if you're
fifteen minutes late, and apologize profusely if it's more.
- If you're talking to someone, you don't get uncomfortable if they
approach closer than half a meter.
- You expect to bargain for houses, cars, antiques, and most items
sold at open-air markets or by Marocchini.
- Even after you're past college, you might still show up at a close
friend's place, especially in the south. In general, however, people
have to invite each other over if a meal is involved.
- Italians from the north are rich, selfish, and drink too much. They
don't go to the university: they want to start working (and earning)
soon. Some of them want to have a law to outrule an invasion from the
- Italians from the south are lazy scoundrels at best, criminals at
worst. They study a lot (that's because they are too lazy to get a real
job), so they end up being public administrators (even in the north), or
teachers (even in northern schools).
- People from the center have mixed characteristics, but in general
they're a bunch of Communists or half-Communists. You wonder why all of
the "quality of life" surveys alway end up giving maximum score to
some mid-sized town of the Center. People from Rome are southerners
under all respects, whatever they might believe or say.
- Your EU cousins: The Spanish are much like you, but they speak in an
amusing and sometimes hard-to-understand way. The French are much more
arrogant. The Germans make wonderful cars but have very little
creativity. The British are civilized but crazy people. They think in
pounds and pints and drive on the wrong side of the road. They need (and
have) laws to stop sale of alcohol at 11:00 lest everybody gets totally
- The USA provides a good part of your entertainment, as well as
technical innovation. Many Americans seem OK, but their
"I-am-now-suing-you" attitude ranges from comical to dangerous. Their
social situation (education, crime, welfare) looks unexplicably
primitive to you.
- You think of Canada as country much like the USA, but more
civilized: they don't own as many guns and don't kill people on the
- Japan is a faraway country that hoards Mediterranean tunafish and
produces cars, video recorders, sushi and bad cartoons. Unless you are a
manga fan, you think of Japanese anime as children stuff.