I have definitely said this about a thousand times over the past three weeks, but I absolutely love Milan! I’m sure my family is growing tired of the repetition, but it is true! I never take my days here for granted and try to make the most of every moment. Prior to living here, when I thought of Italian cuisine, great wine and fresh prosciutto came to mind. While I certainly am indulging in my fair share of Italian wines, meats, and cheeses; there are a few food related differences in comparison to the United States.
First off, the quality of food here does not even compare to the United States. I have never tasted lemons so vibrant, tomatoes so juicy, and bread so soft. I don’t know what the United States adds to their food, but they should take notes from Italy because Italians know how to do it. A perfect example of this is the gluten in Italy compared to the gluten in the states. In the United States my body cannot process gluten containing ingredients and foods. While I do not have Celiac, I do have a mild intolerance and, thus, eating a slice of bread would leave me bed ridden for at least a few hours. I am unsure what the exact differences are, but here I am able to eat a brioche in the morning, pasta in the afternoon, and bread in the evening. I really cannot complain! I saw on TikTok that Italian products are more locally sourced and less processed than products in the United States. I truly believe this because, in the past, if I even so much as looked at gluten the wrong way, there would be a full on war in my stomach. For all those who have a gluten intolerance, have no fear! Make the journey to Italy and eat all the pasta to your heart’s content!
Not only is the gluten game impressive, but so is the coffee game! Italians take their coffee very seriously. I thought the states have a big coffee culture, but boy was I wrong! Italian coffee makes American coffee seem like a joke. I’m embarrassed to even admit that I used to indulge in the occasional Venti Brown Sugar Shaken Espresso with Oatmilk. Here, I strictly have a cappuccino with soy milk in the morning and plain espresso throughout the rest of the day. One crucial element of Italian coffee culture that is different for me, is the utilization of bar counters. When Italians have a quick coffee in between their daily tasks, they usually order a single shot of espresso, stand at the bar counter, finish it within three to four sips, pay, and then leave. To-go cups are much less popular here than in the United States, which I suppose is a good thing considering the current pollution problem. Also, as someone who regularly spills their coffee, the lack of to-go cups keeps my clothes and belongings stain free! In all seriousness I do prefer to drink my espresso standing at the bar counter, and do not plan on reviving my old coffee order upon returning to the states.
Another important element of Italian cuisine that I have been taking advantage of is Aperitivo. This is to Italians as Happy Hour is to Americans. However, there really is no comparison between the two because Aperitivo is much better than American Happy Hour. Aperitivo usually takes places between 4:30pm and 7:30pm at most restaurants, just like American Happy Hour. But, when you order a drink during Aperitivo, customers usually get free potato chips, olives, and maybe, if you are lucky, some circular crackers! No but seriously, these crackers are delicious and I cannot even describe how good they are. Also, during this time most restaurants have stuzzichini or “small hors-d’œuvre” that one could order for a special price. In my opinion, a glass of wine and light snacks are all I need to survive. So typically I am content! But the good thing about Aperitivo is that the possibilities are endless! If snacks simply do not suffice, some restaurants offer Apericena, which is similar to Aperitvo but with a dinner buffet instead of nosh. What makes Aperitvo so special are the intentions behind it. Happy Hour in the United States attracts a lot of people because it is an opportunity to pay less for more booze. Conversely, one does not pay less per drink during Aperitivo. Instead, one pays a little bit more, in order to get stuzzichini or buffets. Consequently, Italians do not view Aperitivo as a time to get wasted, like the drinking culture in much of the United States. Rather, Aperitivo is more wholesome. It is a time to meet with friends or coworkers and converse for a couple of hours. The Milanese tremendously value this time together and is, by far, one of my favorite ways to socialize in Italy.
The final food adjustment that I’ve had to make, thus far, was grocery shopping. Let me set the scene. It was my second time at the grocery store. The first time I was completely unprepared, with no list, meandering down the toiletry aisle trying to differentiate between shampoo and conditioner. I must have spent twenty minutes testing the viscosity of various hair products. I without a doubt looked insane. For my second attempt, I still had no list, but at least I knew my soaps! Hey, progress is progress! Anyway, growing up my mother always went to the grocery store on Sunday mornings. She would have an idea of what recipes to make for the week and would spend accordingly. I am aware that not everyone grocery shops this way, but this is how I was raised and I’ve gotten this far shopping with this mentality. Where my mother and I differ is that I do not exactly know what I want to make. On my second attempt, I knew I needed some sort of chicken and pesto, but that was about it. The rest was up to spontaneity! But as one could imagine, spontaneity gets you in trouble at the grocery store. The next thing I know, I am pushing the shopping cart up and down the aisles grabbing anything that looks somewhat appetizing. Reflecting back on the situation, I wish I had been more mindful of my surroundings. No other customers were pushing a grocery cart or even carrying a basket in their hands! I eventually moseyed over to the checkout line, where I was greeted with wide eyes, staring at myself and at my grocery cart. As the stares intensified, other customers kept joining the line with only a couple of items in their hands. I am not an unreasonable person and kept letting them cut in front of me because I had a huge cart-full of groceries. At this point one would think that the sirens would start going off in my brain, but instead there was only radio silence. After about 10 minutes of waiting, it was finally my turn to get checked out. I moved up to the cashier and shyly said Ciao. Before I could even finish the last syllable the cashier looked at my cart and then switched spots with manager. I had so many things that the MANAGER had to ring me up and that’s when it hit me. I am only supposed to shop day to day. My face turned bright red as the manager mumbled criticizing statements about me to her coworker, in Italian, of course. The sirens were definitely going off at this point, fully blaring! After what felt like an eternity, I paid for my things and packed them into a large re-usable bag that I brought. While packing, I realized that not everything was going to fit and my friends had to put some of my things into their bags. Shamefully, I walked out of the grocery store like a dog with its tail between its legs, and carried my heavy bags all the way home. Note to self, only buy for what you NEED for each day and not what you THINK you will need five days down the road.
Today, my professor told me that besides soccer, the national game that Italians enjoy playing is called “Let’s Guess the Foreigner.” I can attest to the accuracy of this statement, but at the time of the grocery store fiasco I was utterly confused. While I wish the transition to Italy could have been seamless, I never would have altered my habits without some sort of uncomfortable interaction. Plus, I have a fun story to tell! Interestingly enough, some of these newly developed practices are so ingrained in my daily routine that I will have a hard time giving them up. The important thing to remember about this process is that daily observations are necessary to adequately adapt to ones surroundings and, in my case, look LESS like a foreigner and MORE like an Italian.
Here’s to culture shocks and scaring Italians at the grocery store!