Being in Italy, exactly in Catona, Calabria, for the first time, gives me a good reason to write about specifics of the south Italian everyday life and hints of thoughts for fellow travelers with formal reasons, such as business. I am in good company with my Italian-born American husband visiting my parents in law and, therefore, experiencing Italian culture as close as it gets in becoming part of an Italian family. Without further ado:
Hospitality plays a key role in the Italian culture, also the business culture. Home-made drinks and the delicious home-made food is offered. Invitations are not refused and allow time to know each other better.
2. Narrowing streets
Villages and cities are grown organically over hundreds of years and space are limited. When the streets were built, there were no cars yet, now cars parked left and right. Streets become one-lane-streets (with two-way traffic). When renting a car, get full coverage, it’s worth your peace of mind. When using your US-bought GPS or GPS app be nice to it as it’s working hard to identify and pronouncing the tiny twisty streets with some difficulties in defining left and right.
3. Small cars and micro driving
Narrow streets call for tiny cars, small cars, more an extension of arms and legs. As crazy and rule-ignoring it might seem for Americans or Germans, Italians are good drivers in my opinion. They know how to drive the narrow, one-lane streets and hills and watch for humans, especially kids – as pedestrian walkways often are non-existent. Waving ‘hello’, entering a steep curve or street is done with the horn … How to adapt? Drive with your gut, not with your head, there is more room to a tiny street than you think.
4. The midday siesta
Streets and people are busy until noon or 1 pm, then cities and towns become quiet and empty. It is time for a lunch and the midday rest afterward. People disappear from streets, stores are closing, street fairs get broken down (yes, I saw it!). Only cafes, restaurants, gelaterias and such are open. Quiet time everywhere … until about 4 pm in the afternoon when everything comes back to life (fair boots get built up again).
You can’t do business during those times, best you just do the same. It might feel awkward to not be able to do anything, yet after two days, it seems natural – and actually feels good.
5. Passeggiata and getting together
Walking through the streets at around 6 pm gives a picture quite unknown to Americans. In courts and alleys, people sit together and talk, they stand at street corners and sit on banks in parks and marinas. They talk, they go for walks, and they just lean out of the window and watch people. They just are, aware of the surroundings, ready to be seen. For the time being there, if you haven’t before, just follow one such activity as a routine, and you will watch the meaning of this casual togetherness growing every day and allowing the space for things to happen.
Shopping is different for there are still much more individual stores: shoe store, clothing store, bags, bakeries, butcher stores, tobacco and news store, pharmacy etc. And for going in a store, attention is individualized and secluded. Even in the smallest town, there is a fine dresses boutique: families are large and marriages and birthdays, communion, etc. are more frequently and elegant robes needed more frequently. Appearance is very important. There is a dress code in business; appearance stands in relation to success and competence. And remember: everything is closed for the midday break, and shut down at 6 to 8 pm, no business on Sunday, Catholic festivities and national holidays.
7. The garbage in the streets
In parts of Italy (usually those regions with less tourism) is lots of garbage. On the beach, across a beautiful house, next to tourism beach bars, in the streets, on picnic sites in the forest – and I mean lots of garbage.
At home, there is a strict recycling separation of garbage, yet the attitude stops behind the door, an attitude that no law can regulate. Sadly, learn to watch away and ignore it. And make sure you don’t add to it.
Meeting families or friends in the street greet each other with kisses left and right on the cheeks. Older persons and women will always be introduced first. People well known may become a warm embrace, also in business settings. In general and everywhere greet with “Buongiorno” (good morning) and “Buonasera” (good afternoon/evening), it’s a polite manner. Business partners shake hands, always in a standing position, with each individual person (no waving to the group).
9. The Italian language
Hand-gestured, expressively pronounced discussions.
With astonishment, I observed my Italian-born now American husband. When he talks in English or with us in German, he has this down-to-earth, neutral (beautiful) voice. However, observing him talking his favorite topic with his cousins and extended friends, he transforms into that full-body expressive gesturing being with a lively voice whose sound alone speaks (even if you don´t know the language).
Italians use most likely the most of the body language of all European countries. I actually decided to bring some of that expressive character over into my English and German language. How would your speech change with more emotional emphasis and expression? Speaking simultaneous and interrupting – also during business meetings – is part of the Italian communication style.
10. Respect, status, and hierarchy
Status and hierarchy are essential in Italian society, power and age are highly respected, and much attention is also given to children. Building close and trusting relationships is very important in Italian’s business culture. A well-connected person can make the right introduction for you.
11. The food
Food is socializing. Food is, of course, different in the various regions of Italy, food
reflects the various life situations of the people. Often, people were poor and used what they had on pasta and vegetable and fruits and spices out of their gardens. It was not a fancy cuisine as it seems sometimes nowadays. What really stroke me was the fresh pasta: what a difference. It is definitely worth the extra work of making and cleaning up the machine afterward. Even a simple menu starts with antipasti and bread, then there is a pasta dish, after that the meat is served – by itself on the plate or with salad and vegetables – then there is fruits or dessert. Hint: hold yourself back at the delicious antipasti and the pasta dish as you don’t know what’s still coming to the table. Business meetings over lunch can take up to three hours.
12. Coffee Espresso
A small espresso or a lungo espresso are both small – compared to American’s grande or venti size coffees. However, the brewing method and the essential strength of it feels satisfying and enough for the hours to come. Even a little sugar soothes the strength and supports the effectiveness. “Latte” is the Italian word for milk, so no shortcuts in ordering your drink (unless you want indeed milk.