Five Things Italians Got Right

November 25, 2014

Just a few days ago, I returned from a bit of an expedition in Italy with my husband. While I contemplated giving a full recap of our travels to Rome, Lucca, Assisi, Pisa, Venice, Florence and more, I realized that most have more important things to do this week — such as researching the best Thanksgiving appetizer to bring to an upcoming family gathering or picking out the most forgiving outfit for the feast — than to write such a novel.

Since it was my first time in Italy, I took every moment and detail in with a fresh eye and sense of wonder.  Being part-Italian myself, I thoroughly enjoyed soaking in the culture and history that I have heard of for years through my extended family. While it is a real struggle to pick a favorite part or place, I will however share a few highlights and learnings which I am dubbing What Italians Have Gotten Right. (I’ll save the other side of the story for another day.)

Shall we?

One room of Canova's Workshop where you can eat amongst his works

One room of Canova’s Workshop where you can eat amongst his works

Art History – If you’re an art-history enthusiast like me, you could lose yourself in the glories of the endless art throughout Italy. I would be happy to spend a lifetime visiting museums, palaces and churches to soak it all in. Italy has done a remarkable job displaying, preserving and restoring art throughout its cities. Big highlights included the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel, the Borghese Gallery and Barberini Palace in Rome, the Academia in Florence and countless churches throughout the trip that house world-famous paintings, sculptures and even the stunning tombs of artists like Michelangelo.

What a treat to not always have to enter a museum or special venue to find art!

A highlight that incorporated both fun and art history was when we paid a visit to Antonio Canova’s workshop, now a restaurant and cocktail bar that features many of the sculptures finished and unfinished works. Having a Mai Tai next to an enormous sculpture was quite the experience!

A few varieties of pasta discovered along the way

A few varieties of pasta discovered along the way

Pasta – More than 500 types of pasta exist in Italy, where the creation and use of pasta is truly an art and a culture, not just a carb choice.

A pasta should be carefully chosen for the dish it accompanies. Italy has truly mastered this, and what a treat it was to experience and taste as many as I could get my hands on.

A Slower Pace – When much of your transportation consists of walking, shops open late (and close down mid-afternoon), and meals consist of multi-course meals served at a peaceful pace, days in Italy take on a new leisurely tilt. Gone (very quickly) is the habit of rushing, tight schedules and evenings filled with activities. What a refreshing speed — one I’ve never known!

With leisurely lunches and late, long-lasting dinners, meals became a very important part of the day, and they are an important part of Italian culture. Dinners, especially, are an opportunity to relax and spend quality time with family and friends. While life back here in Minnesota isn’t inclined to 9 p.m.-to-midnight dinners, I will very much treasure the two-and-a-half weeks of slow-paced days and meals with my husband, family and friends abroad.

For a very planned individual like myself, this new pace took a bit of getting used to, but I hope to bring glimpses of it into my life back home. Slowing down the pace of a day to spend extra time with a coworker, client, friend or family member can add much value to a day and to relationships.

Repurposing – Great pride can be found when antique furniture finds a place in a new home, an old piece of clothing is crafted into a new addition to a closet or an old home is remodeled and brought back to life. We think we are so thrifty! And we are – no doubt about it

But imagine old fortified walls from the 1500s – more than four kilometers around — being repurposed into a walking path, parks and real estate. The walls of Lucca house restaurants and more — even festivals, such as the Lucca Comics and Games, the second-biggest festival in the world. It features more than 200,000 comic and game enthusiasts every year since its founding in 1966. It was such a treat to visit this repurposed beauty, and I thoroughly enjoyed not only the history of it, but also the ability to take an afternoon bike ride around the city. We even had the ‘pleasure’ of seeing a bit of the aftermath of such festival.

A fun fact: Did you know that the 96-foot-tall baldacchino within Saint Peter’s (otherwise known as the large four-poster, solid-bronze canopy over the main altar) is made from nearly 100,000 pounds of bronze taken from the roof of the Pantheon in the early 1600s?

IMG_4868Monumental Persistence – How can you not think of persistence when you look at the Leaning Tower of Pisa? Not only was the building finished despite the architectural blooper, but it clearly has a proven determination to defy gravity and continues to stand after nearly 700 years. It was a beautiful masterpiece to behold and fun experience to walk up the slanted staircase of 294 steps to reach the top.

Coffee Culture (A bonus highlight because this post wouldn’t be complete without an ode to the many rounds of espresso that I consumed throughout the trip) – While I was beyond excited for a wonderfully caffeinated adventure, I wasn’t prepared for the beauty of the coffee culture that pervades Italy; it was unlike anything I’ve experienced.

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A highlight of my coffee career – The marocchino

Running out the door with a ‘to-go’ coffee is nearly non-existent in Italy, and most coffee drinking occurs right at the counter at the coffee bar, or very near by at a small table (if they have them). Not only does this add to the slower pace of the culture, but it adds to the experience of the drink itself. You truly get to spend a few moments enjoying your drink of choice – with or without company – without the distraction of an activity, work or being on-the-go.

While I have a hard time pinpointing a favorite part of the trip, I can definitely call out my favorite espresso discovery — the marocchino – which I have also dubbed ‘Heaven In A Cup.’ This delectable, caffeinated beverage consists of a shot of espresso, just a bit foam and a touch of cacao all served in a tiny cup. Beware the cacao mustache when drinking!

Though I would go back in a heartbeat, I look forward to being home, rejuvenated and taking some of Italy’s treasures and experiences into this winter season. While getting a Starbucks barista to whip me up a marocchino and letting me drink at the counter may prove difficult, I look forward to finding ways to incorporate a taste of Italy into my everyday pace and meals — as well as finding creative and successful ways to overcome my own leaning towers.

Arrivederci!