Answering Your Questions: Italy Edition

Hey, remember when JennieBoo tagged me with the eight things meme and you wrote in with your questions after I asked for help?

For those who haven’t been following, go read parts one, two, and three of my answers to catch up because now we’re on the fourth installment of responses…and I *still* won’t have gotten to all the questions by the time I’m done here.

You are such an inquisitive bunch!

These questions all have to do with Italy in some way or another, so let’s start with a photo to get us in the mood.

gulf of squillace, calabria, italy

Now settle in and get a cup of whatever it is will get you through this–it’s a long one.

1. Sharon in Sicily asked me to name the strangest thing I’ve seen in everyday Italian life.

Oh where to begin? I’m going to go with something that truly baffles me and that no one has been able to adequately explain to me thus far.

Italians are notoriously obsessive about the cleanliness of the inside of their homes. So then why, oh why, is there so much litter, graffiti, and occasional bouts with garbage piles *outside* of them?

The juxtaposition of the two extremes is just…well…it’s quite simply the strangest thing I have seen in everyday Italian life.

2. My Melange would like to know what my favorite spot in Italy is and where I’d like to go that I haven’t yet been; in a related question, Kimberly wants to know where I’d suggest a first time overseas traveler head first.

You probably don’t know this and maybe won’t even believe it, but I’m not well-traveled within Italy at all–Calabria, yes, as I’ve seen everything in depth and many times (except the area around Cosenza–no offense to the Cosentini!). But I’ve never been to the biggies like Rome (gasp!) and Florence.

Wow. That felt like confession. I feel better now.

Anyway, right now, I’d have to say that my favorite spot in Italy is, well, home.

But a close second is Serra San Bruno, the site of an 11th century monastery nestled up in the Serra mountains (part of the Sila range) about 45 minutes away from me. It’s a wooded area with walking trails and spots for picnics–there’s even a little stream running through it. So peaceful and relaxing.

I also like Taormina in Sicily, which is gorgeous although quite touristy.

I’ve meant to travel more, I swear, but it’s kind of expensive especially since I’ve been busy working to save up for various other things; travel just hasn’t been a priority.

But on Kimberly‘s point, the first place we’ll probably head once we get out and about is Rome–I think it’s the most logical starting point for discovering Italy (but then I’ve never been very logical, which explains my roundabout route). Plus P’s sister lives just outside the city, so that’ll cut down on our costs.

3. Bec wants to know more about how long it took me to be fluent in Italian, or at least to be able to understand and respond.

First, as background for those who don’t know–I came here without speaking Italian aside from “ciao” and some food words.

Now on becoming fluent, let me put it this way: the basics are easy, especially when you’re immersed and don’t have a choice but to learn, as was my situation. I went back to the US after six months here, and I was getting along just fine on a day to day basis by the time I left.

That said, four years later, I’m still not where I’d like to be, but I can hold my own in pretty much any situation. I think in Italian, dream in Italian, and often count in Italian, so I’d say I’m well on my way. What I need to do now is really study grammar and expand my vocabulary, and then I’ll consider myself truly fluent.

I’d say it’ll take a couple more years, though, because this, unfortunately, isn’t much of a priority either. I’ve gotten a bit lazy, I’m afraid, and I’m quite happy to simply not struggle every day with easy things. When I’m ready for a challenge again, I’ll pick up some books and study.

4. Stefania wanted to know if Italy’s lifestyle really is more laid back and how I spend my days.

Great question, and I’m so glad you asked!

I live in a 350-person village in southern Italy, so yes, the lifestyle here *is* pretty laid back; people do things on their own time and when they want, thus our many expat complaints about lines at the post office and the doctor’s office and not having our phone lines fixed for months.

That said, there are also cities in Italy, especially the farther north you go, that are very much like cities anywhere–a lot of rushing around and, unfortunately, a lot of stress. Our friend Michellanea is in Milano, and I think she’d be the first to tell you that she ain’t taking afternoon naps and sipping limoncello all day.

Of course, neither am I, but I’m also not rushing around trying to get as much done in a day as possible–or having to cover great physical distances to get those things done (this is a general difference between city and rural life, I think, and not Italy-specific).

My average day? I do the same things as most everyone else only I work from home (except when I’m teaching) so I can schedule things when I want–some mornings I have errands, for example, and those are always more stressful than anything else I do. Other than that, I do yoga, take Luna on walks, work, get cappuccino at the bar with a friend, work, cook, eat, do laundry, clean, talk to my mom on the phone, blah blah blah.

Oh, and blog of course.

5. And finally, we have Anno:

It seems to me that there are so many romantic memoirs published about life in Italy (Eat Pray Love, which I Loved Loved Loved; and Under the Tuscan Sun); when you read these books, do you snort in derision, or is there something in them that still resonates with you?

This is a fabulous question. I’m laughing as I imagine my snorts of derision. I’ll have to work on those–sounds like fun!

Hmm. How can I say this? There are some authors’ styles that I appreciate more than others. Frances Mayes in Under the Tuscan Sun really pours it on; she’s a flowery writer recounting the stresses of restoring a villa while she’s in the US and trying to find creative ways to use all the wonderful flowers and vegetables in her Tuscan garden. She’s half in the US and half out and obviously had a considerable amount of cash to work with.

Let’s just say we didn’t share the same experience.

That said, I didn’t hate the book, and indeed, I found some passages that I liked enough to copy into my quote book such as:

Where you are is who you are. The further inside you the place moves, the more your identity is intertwined with it. Never casual, the choice of place is the choice of something you crave.

I identified with this sentiment as I read it during the year between when I decided to move here and when I did. So no snorts there.

On the other hand, I *really* enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert, and yes, I keep promising a review, and it’ll come at some point. I definitely recommend it as I enjoyed following Gilbert’s journey, but interestingly, more on a spiritual level than anything.

Again, no snorting.

But I will say that if you want to read a spirited, down-to-earth “I moved to Italy” book, check out Extra Virgin: A Young Woman Discovers the Italian Riviera, Where Every Month is Enchanted by Annie Hawes.

Here are some of my favorite parts:

No matter how much you feel you’re in the middle of nowhere around here, completely unobserved, you’re sure to come across someone who saw exactly what you were up to–or who knows someone else who did.

Expats in small towns? You with me on this one?

I mentally take my hat off to whatever unbelievably desperate person first discovered the edibility of the olive–I’m sure I would have starved without ever guessing for a moment that the things weren’t poisonous.

For those who don’t know, raw olives aren’t fit to be eaten–and if you don’t believe me, you’re welcome to try for yourself.

Lucy [Hawes’ sister] and I are thinking longingly of a quiet place up a mountain, a place where people only speak one at a time, and in English. We need to rest our reeling brains.

Here here!

And finally, addressing a subject near and dear to my heart:

I, meanwhile, far from being modernized, have recently found myself being put through a typically Italian trauma…I have transmuted, inexplicably yet inexorably, from a signorina to a signora.

Perhaps I should explain that “signorina” means a young woman, and “signora,” well, doesn’t.

And that wraps up today’s Italy Edition answers.

P.S. Figs Olives Wine–I haven’t forgotten about your Italy-related question; I just have bigger plans for it.

P.P.S. If you haven’t checked out the Bella Bags E-Party and Contest, get there! And do keep checking Bella Bags because MarcΓ­a’s adding new bags all the time.


[tags] italy, expat, under the tuscan sun, frances mayes, eat pray love, elizabeth gilbert, litter in italy, graffiti in italy[/tags]

32 Beans of Wisdom to “Answering Your Questions: Italy Edition”
  1. Taffiny

    Thanks for answering all those great questions, I really enjoyed reading them.

  2. Jen

    This was really fascinating, and I’m definitely going to read that last book you mentioned. I already have Eat, Pray, Love on my list and have read the Frances Mayes books.

  3. Giulia

    I totally agree with you on the whole obsession with cleanliness inside the home, yet so much litter and garbage on the outside, thing.
    Great answers, I had fun reading them!

  4. Audra

    Hi there! I’ve linked to you in the hopes that you’ll do the same. Cheers!!

  5. sognatrice

    Taffiny, thanks for reading through it!

    Jen, I’d have to say that Extra Virgin is definitely one of my favorite Italy books in general; I read it the summer before I moved here, and it was just fabulous.

    Giulia, thanks! Good to know I’m not the only one who just doesn’t get it.

    Audra, done! Looking forward to reading you πŸ˜‰

  6. Karina

    I really love the questions and definitely the answers that this idea of yours generated! It’s been really nice getting to know a little more about you this way.

    That picture is BEAUTIFUL, by the way.

  7. Kathleen aka Coffee Mom

    Ahhh look at that picture! I have added Calabria to my list of stops on my big trip. Beautiful!

  8. Figs Olives Wine

    Don’t feel rushed at all! I am always so behind on stuff like this.
    I think you should go to Rome right before Christmas. The outdoor Christmas markets are amazing, and I’d be happy to give you some recommendations on the best ones. I went and shot them with my photographer for my book. Truly magical.
    I’m so impressed you moved there with no Italian. They say it takes 7 years to become fluent in any language, but I have the feeling you’ve got it down better than you think already.

  9. The Passionate Palate

    Thanks for sharing yourself so intimately. I can’t wait to read that book you recommended. About becoming fluent – I am not sure one ever does become completely fluent. (I don’t mean to scare you or discourage you.) My Italian husband has lived in the U.S. for 26 years and even he isn’t 100% fluent. I think there are so many subtleties and nuances to a language that unless you are raised with it, you are constantly learning. But then that is the beauty of life, isn’t it?

  10. jennifer

    I know exactly what you mean about the “sanitizing” obsession. These are the same people who throw their trash out of moving car windows, or wash their hair only once a week!
    Oh, the strangness of reading about Italy now that I’m not there… thanks for your point of view. Mine was a bit tarnished!

  11. softdrink

    Hi there,
    It’s probably about time I admit to the fact that I lurk at your blog practically every day…I just love your topics and the way you write. So thanks!
    I’m totally with you on Frances Mayes…I resisted reading her for a long time, but I couldn’t resist A Year In The World after reading the intro. She has a beautiful writing style, but obviously way more cash than me. Her travels seem a little too perfect, but I can’t stop reading.
    Have you read Tim Parks?

  12. somepinkflowers

    very good….

    i love your confessions
    about not having been to rome and florence.

    why do we think everyone in italy has been to rome?


    am jotting down some of your book titles, thanks…

  13. chris & erin

    this was fun reading your answers! I’ve had the eat. pray. love. book on the library waiting list forever…but I’ll have to add that other recommendation as well!

  14. alexmom

    Ciao M,
    Thought you’d be interested to know that your post was listed in the *Google Alert for Italy* that I receive in my mailbox daily. With all the possible Expat Blogs, Wow, you’re really on a roll!! How do you accomplish so much in such a relaxed environment?
    And I love Annie Hawes and can’t get her other books here. They only seem to be available in the UK. I’ll try to find them next time I visit.

  15. Farfallina - Roam 2 Rome

    Now that you mention it, yeeeaaa! why is it that people are sooo obsessed with inside cleanliness, but not outside??? hmm…

    I like your writing sognatrice πŸ™‚

  16. sognatrice

    Karina, I have to be honest here, I never thought by asking for questions, we would’ve come this far–I’ll have to do it again sometime, when I at least finish this set of course πŸ˜‰

    Kathleen, yeah! Come to Calabria! Let me know when you’ll be around, OK?

    Figs, you have a good idea for Rome; we’ll see, and of course I’ll keep everyone posted πŸ™‚ As for fluency, I’m sure it’s different for everyone–for instance, I’m in a relationship with someone who speaks no English so that’s bound to speed things up. And I’m so grateful πŸ™‚

    Palate, ciao! How lovely to see you here! I’ve already checked out your site, and as I commented over there, I’ll be adding you to my blogroll shortly. I don’t suppose I’m really looking to be perfect in Italian, as I agree with you–without being a native speaker, that’s nearly impossible. But I know where I need and want to improve, so I suppose that’s half the battle πŸ˜‰ And yes, constant learning is one of my favorite things about being human and alive πŸ™‚

    Jennifer, tarnished? Nah. Some things just strike us at different points in this adventure–I find when I read things of people newly here I often go “oh yeah….” because it’s something that doesn’t even register anymore. Weird.

    Softdrink, welcome to the land of the commenters! So glad you stepped out to say ciao πŸ™‚ I haven’t read either A Year in the World or, sadly, Tim Parks–I have three of his books back in the States that didn’t make the trip. If only my mom could find them, I’d ask her to send them πŸ˜‰

    SPF, hee hee. I do feel a little freer now, and I’m happy to see that no one has (yet) bombarded me with “YOU HAVE TO GO!!!” blah blah. It’s not like I don’t want to, sheesh, but sometimes things aren’t in the cards at a given moment. I’m pretty patient that way πŸ˜‰

    Erin, have you joined The Sisterhood of the Traveling Books? I know there’s at least one copy of Eat, Pray, Love on there (with quite a waiting list, but I think it’ll go fast).

    Alexmom, really? Wow is right. I need to put “Italy” in my titles more often…hello fellow expats? Let that be a lesson! As for getting so much done, well, you know they say you can take the girl out of America, but you can’t take America out of the girl πŸ˜‰ It definitely took me a while to find rhythm here (especially in August–gah!) but I think I’m mostly there now. Hopefully!

    Farfallina, well thank you; I’m rather fond of yours as well πŸ™‚ And you know, the cleanliness thing, well, I’ve even asked P–he can’t explain it either (and he wasn’t even offended when I asked, which was nice).

  17. kissa

    Just found your blog and feel that the questions gave me an insight into life in Italy. I look forward to reading more.

  18. sognatrice

    Kissa, welcome! What a fun name you have (and no, I didn’t know *that’s* what it meant–everyone else will just have to check out your profile if they want to know) πŸ˜‰

  19. nyc/caribbean ragazza

    I loved all the books you have mentioned.

    I was just talking to a friend of mine from Italian class and wondering if I will ever become fluent.

    It’s good to hear once you are there it becomes a lot easier.

  20. sognatrice

    Oh, infinitely easier, NYC! That is, *if* you surround yourself with as much Italian as possible. I’m thinking an Italian lover is a must here….

    And although quite awful sometimes, TV really does help because you get a feel for the rhythm and flow of a conversation. I always tell people to watch Italian soap operas, in fact–the dialogue is so predictable you’ll find yourself spitting out random (if not dramatic) Italian phrases without even knowing!

    Fun times πŸ™‚

  21. Andrea

    Yoyo–regarding #1, this is definitely not just an Italian thing. . .but well. .in Bulgaria, a thing which comes from a lack of unity and pride for a homeland and a very collectivist (perhaps rebelling against past communist government) attitude. Sad.

  22. Wanderlust Scarlett

    THAT was a lovely bit of time with my coffee in hand, reading through all of your answers.

    I very much enjoyed that, thank you!

    Best 108 meme I’ve ever seen.

    Scarlett & Viaggiatore

  23. sognatrice

    Andrea, are you calling me a yoyo? Hah! Anyway, I think you could be right since many southern Italians, at least, have very little interest in nationalism, having been bartered, traded, and conquered for much of its history.

    On the other hand, most are *extremely* proud of their own particular villages/towns, so you’d think they’d at least keep those clean…but maybe they just go to other people’s towns to litter πŸ˜‰

    Anyway, great point, and I’m sorry it’s an issue in Bulgaria too πŸ™

    Scarlett, yeah, this is the meme that won’t stop giving. I have two more posts to do on this, and then…maybe I’ll have to open up the line for questions again πŸ˜‰

  24. Italiana Americana

    Thanks ! i’m going to check out that book extra virgin! πŸ™‚ sound great!

  25. sognatrice

    Italiana, do it! You’ll love it! As I remember it was a little slow going for me in the beginning, but then it became my lunchtime treat…it would sit on my desk all morning daring me to ignore it. I have such fond memories of reading it, in fact, as it was right before I came here–when I was *so* ready to just be here already….


  26. anno

    Every time I stop by your site, I feel like I can taste the fragrance of strong coffee and fresh-picked oranges.

    Thanks so much for answering the impertinent questions of a relative newcomer. I enjoyed your answers, and I’m looking forward to finding Extra Virgin on my next bookshopping expedition.

  27. sognatrice

    Anno, what a wonderful thing to say, er, write!

    Answering your questions was my pleasure, and I do hope you enjoy the book πŸ™‚

  28. stefanie

    So glad you loved Eat Pray Love! I knew you would. πŸ™‚

    Also, I love that line about olives. Indeed, I am VERY glad someone figured out how to make them edible! Life without olives? How sad.

  29. My Melange


    Thanks for answering my question! Rome is great, you will love it:) As far as your memoirs go. I loved ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’. It holds special meaning as it was THE reason I traveled to Italy in the first place. I recently read Carol Drinkwater’s “The Olive Farm” and LOVED that too! I am moving onto “The Olive Harvest”, the next in the series. I tried to read “Extra Virgin”, but never could get into it…so I did not finish it πŸ™ I think you either relate to the authors writing style…or you don’t. At least with memoirs πŸ˜‰

  30. sognatrice

    Stefanie, or, more to the point–what would a martini be without olives? Hee hee. Actually I’ve never had a martini, but if George Clooney asked me, I wouldn’t turn him down πŸ˜‰

    My Melange, thanks for sharing your connections with the books. I have to say that with Extra Virgin, it took me a while to get into it; I seem to remember the paragraphs being really long, and I hate that. But once they actually got the village and started settling in, things picked up. Just would’ve liked more paragraphs, that’s all πŸ™‚

    Amazing the power of a book, isn’t it? I haven’t read the Drinkwater books…hmm…Amazon wishlist?

  31. BecsLifeOnline

    Thanks for answering my question!! πŸ˜€

  32. sognatrice

    My pleasure Bec πŸ™‚

Michelle KaminskyMichelle Kaminsky is an American attorney-turned-freelance writer who lived in her family's ancestral village in Calabria, Italy for 15 years. This blog is now archived. 

Calabria Guidebook

Calabria travel guide by Michelle Fabio



Homemade apple butter
Green beans, potatoes, and pancetta
Glazed Apple Oatmeal Cinnamon Muffins
Pasta with snails alla calabrese
Onion, Oregano, and Thyme Focaccia
Oatmeal Banana Craisin Muffins
Prosciutto wrapped watermelon with bel paese cheese
Fried eggs with red onion and cheese
Calabrian sausage and fava beans
Ricotta Pound Cake