Simple Living, Italian Style

Over the years, I’ve had the chance to meet many Italians through my husband.  I feel very comfortable among Italians but I would never claim to be an authority on the country or its people.  I think my experiences are very different from that of most Americans and has allowed me to see through both negative and “positive” stereotypes. 

When I say “Italians”, I’m referring to Italians born and raised in Italy, not Italian-Americans. This is an important distinction because the two are very different and encounter different stereotypes.  Thanks to the glut of travel / lifestyle magazines and TV shows, Americans often embrace the “positive” stereotype that Italians enjoy a simpler life a la “Under A Tuscan Sun”.  They eat and dine well, spend quality time with friends and family, and live stress-free lives somewhere among vineyards and rolling verdant hillsides.  While these images have some truth in them, the reality of the average working Italian is far different. 

Most of our Italian friends have full-time jobs. Most continue working once they have children. They endure crowded cities and tough commutes.  Weekends can be packed with chores and errands.  Modern Italians are caught in the same rat race as Americans.  In fact, if I had to pick a stereotype, I would say that Italians are generally stressed-out and cynical.  If you believed them, nothing seems to work, everyone is corrupt, and cost of living is too expensive.

Scratch the surface, however, and there are subtle differences.  These little differences are things I try to embrace a simpler life despite my own hour-long commute and hectic life.

It will take several posts to really do justice to this topic, but here are some of the things I’ve noticed:

1 ) Always Eat Well: Despite their busy schedules, Italians seem to make good food a priority.  I still remember a Milan subway station that was full of shops, including food vendors who sold excellent pre-made items as well as high-quality ingredients like prosciutto, pancetta, parmigiano, bread, extra virgin olive oil, pasta and more.  My husband obviously subscribes to this philosophy.  This existence of this blog is a testament to this! The frugal aspect: If you learn to cook, you can eat very well for less.

2 ) Paint The Walls Even If You Rent: If I were single and renting, I would never have painted the walls of our house.  My husband has a more ‘live in the moment’ philosophy and I have to say that he is often right.

We’ve painted the walls of almost every room. We planted flowers and put in fencing.  He even replaced the bathroom cabinet. (We kept the old crappy one so we can re-hang it when we move.)  Of course, we try to minimize expenses by covering the worn-out carpet with large area rugs and by using large planters instead of putting everything in the ground.  By treating the rental like it’s ours, the house really feels like our home. The frugal aspect: We don’t buy more house than we can afford.  We live in a high cost of living area. I’ve done some online calculation and it’s actually cheaper for us to rent than own even if we stay put for 30 years!

3 ) Take A Real Vacation, Not A Stay-cation: Yes, Italians get four weeks of vacation a year and we get a measly two weeks.  However, it’s not just the time-off, it’s the attitude. Many Americans I know don’t seem to have much interest in seeing the world and don’t even have a passport!  The frugal aspect:  Travel is only as expensive as you make it but it’s also very possible to see the world on a tight budget. 

4 ) Don’t Talk About Work: There’s an amusing scene in Woody Allen’s Vicki Christina Barcelona (Spain, not Italy, but oh well..) in which the title characters meet up with fellow Americans. The topic turns to technology (DVR, Slingbox or something like that) and work, work, work (What do you do?). Americans really identify themselves by the work they do, or at least it appears that way at first.  In contrast,  unless you ask, Italians don’t talk about work much even if they hold a very interesting  job. They’ll talk about anything else, especially if it’s food-related.  By the end of dinner, they’re usually talking about the next mealThe frugal aspect: It’s important to focus on the truly important things in life: food, home, family and friends, travel and life experiences. 

You don’t have to wait for your next trip to Italy to enjoy the Italian life. Learn to cook, paint your house even if you rent, and the next time you are at a dinner party, don’t talk about your Tivo or work!

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12 responses to “Simple Living, Italian Style

  1. Well, my only comment on #3 is that Europeans can travel anywhere in Europe for roughly what it would cost for an American to fly inside the US. It’s a matter of geography. Paris to London is a 5 hour ride. We drive that far to see Chad’s parents in NY.

    For someone from the US to get to travel a lot within Europe, they’d either need lots of time (to travel around the whole of Europe in one fell swoop) or a lot of money (to afford multiple flights across the Atlantic). Most don’t have either.

    I would guess that the # of Europeans travelling off their continent is even with the US.

  2. It would be interesting to see stats on the # of Europeans traveling off continent vs. that of the U.S.. Geography certainly is a factor I hadn’t thought of.

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  4. Oh, thank you for this. I am one of those silly souls who drools over “Under the Tuscan Sun” and was verbally slapped by an Italian for romanticizing his country based on “that wretched woman.” ha!

    Anyhoo, my husband is from Scotland and even there, the talk of work is not common. He was nearly offended when I introduced him to friends while we were dating and the first question out of every.single.person’s.mouth (I’m serious) was, “So, what do you do?”

  5. “I’ve done some online calculation and it’s actually cheaper for us to rent than own even if we stay put for 30 years!”

    I loved your post. But, I would have to say the above sentence is highly unlikely. Even in a very expensive area, buying usually beats renting for a duration of 30 years. There are many factors including taxes and appreciation which are difficult to calculate. But, the most important factor is that rents keep going up, while a mortgage payment stays the same and the loan principal goes down.

    Just for the sake of argument, let’s say that renting would be cheaper over 30 years. Then, after 30 years, you would still owe rent every month, instead of having a paid off house. And, rent isn’t going to be cheap in 30 years, especially where I live.

    • I think the truth is probably somewhere in-between. I have known people who lost money on a house simply because they purchase during a bubble so I don’t think buying is always better than renting. Of course many people do make a profit when they sell. However, even in profit situations, the actual profit is often less than you think. Most people I know don’t factor in taxes, upkeep, insurance or interest when they sell their house. For example, if they purchased a $400,000 house and sell it for $600,000 years later, they tell everyone that they made a $200,000 profit, without considering that their “profit” depends upon their original downpayment and interest on their loan. But you’re right that rents do increase and that is a factor beyond your control, unlike a mortgage! I have to take a second look at that New York Times online calculator.

      We’ve been lucky to have only 2 rent increases over the past 10+ years and I forget how rare that is!

  6. My trip to Italy was a little more on the relaxing side. People would sit in cafes and just talk. There was no “to go” coffee. People weren’t in a rush to move on to the next thing. I kind of loved it.

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  11. simplelifeinfrance

    Ok, “Under the Tuscan Sun” is one of my parents’ favorite movies and I have to say it kind of annoys me. I’m not an expert on Italy, but I can extrapolate the whole thing to living in France and buying a huge house that’s falling apart in the countryside etc. The movie is highly idealized. HIGHLY. Ok, I’ll stop.

    I think it’s funny because the French are similar: eat well no matter what, paint the rented apartment walls (also because they intend to live in the rental a LONG time), don’t talk about work (phew, what a relief).

    Not everyone can afford to go somewhere on vacation, but those who can, do.

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