- Showers are small. Really small. For one person only. And forget about shaving your legs cuz you can’t bend over. Seriously, at least half the people I know would not be able to turn around in these things, some might even struggle to get in. Heck I struggle to get out! The hotel in Rome had a fancier (and ever so slightly larger) version of the same idea, but really, all the showers are something like 30”x 30”. That, my friends, is small!
- Mattresses are firm. Like, really firm. I like a firm mattress. I’ve slept in five beds in Italy so far and each was really, really, firm. Felt pretty good for the first twelve nights. (are you reading between the lines here?)
- Pillows are flat. If you like fluffy down pillows, or even a generic version of something fluffy, you better bring your own. Luckily, I don’t. Also lucky that I know how to roll up a towel to place under my neck when sleeping. And good thing I sleep on my back. (See “mattresses” above.)
- Space is used very economically. Slider doors with full-length mirrors. Kitchen stoves that convert into counter space. No bulky appliances. Showers (see above). Balconies just wide and deep enough to stand on and accommodate a chair or two and maybe a small table. Americans could learn a lot from this. The “tiny houses” movement is a step in the right direction. But for those of us who still need more room for books (or…pick your favorite hobby and passion), we need more space. But not so much space.
- Rental cars are manual. Mine was five-speed. Thank you, Papa, for teaching me to drive a stick shift on the expressway during rush hour in Chicago. Best skill ever! Next to typing, that is. I’m so glad I took typing as a summer class before high school, about one year before I learned to drive a manual car. Geez, do they even teach typing anymore? For that matter, does anyone learn to drive a stick anymore?
- I’m still freaked out by Vespas. Okay, maybe freaked out is a bit strong. But these things go fast. Sure it looks fabulous for Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, but I will not be riding a Vespa anytime soon.
- Everyone hangs their laundry. Every balcony comes equipped with clothes pins. Even my first apartment had a clothes rack hanging outside of the kitchen window. In hotels, a clothesline reaches three feet from one end of the tiny bathroom to the other. Unless you live in the country or maybe if you have an enclosed backyard, we WASPs definitely have a thing about not wanting folks to see our laundry. Even clean laundry, when hanging outside, is somehow considered “dirty.” It’s too private, too personal. Or maybe too closely associated with poverty. But not here. Even underwear is hung to dry in the breeze. Of course, this also has to do with #4: Economical Use of Space.
- Bath towels are LARGE. I mean, beach towel size. Now, this cracks me up because remember what I said about the showers? People here are generally not that big. The towels seem disproportionate to the size of the showers and even the size of the bathrooms. But maybe the real question is, why are our standard towels so small in the States? I mean, really, why?? We are so generous with space, we super-size everything, and yet the standard towel in the store and in hotels is barely big enough for a teenager. WHY???
- Kleenex doesn’t exist. Okay, maybe it’s somewhere in Italy, but I haven’t seen it. I’ve had allergies since I was seven. Even on good days, I still blow my nose. Recently, I’ve had a little drip. Not a cold, not allergies. Just a drip. This is the same reason I’m not good at cross-country skiing (or any winter sports): Every few minutes I have to stop and wipe my nose. So naturally, facial tissue is a staple in my home. Like, in every room. But not here. Only toilet paper. It’s a bit unsettling to use the same paper (albeit soft) that I use to wipe my butt to also wipe my nose. But I’m acclimating.
- Spices are hard to come by. At least here in Balestrate, where I’m finally cooking. The only thing I can find on the shelves is salt. Lots and lots of salt. Black pepper is a distant second. Then fennel. Who cooks with fennel? Am I missing something? I was super lucky to finally find red pepper flakes. Huge score! And luckily, there’s one place that sells fresh basil (basilico). So, when in Italy… use garlic! Lots and lots of garlic. Garlic in everything. I know, antibacterial and antiviral properties. Ok, so much for ayurvedic protocol. I’m on the Mediterranean diet now!
- Produce shops are full-service. Like a full-service gas station, except that these days this only means someone pumps your gas. In Italy, they pump your gas. They also pick your produce. I’ve been scolded twice over this. The shop owner, an older woman, waving her fingers and shaking her head at me. First it happened over the mushrooms, so I was smart enough to not try picking my own zucchini. But the oranges, I figured were safe game. No! A sharp reprimand, more shaking and waving. This is a weird thing for an American. Not being able to pick and choose for oneself. Basically antithetical to the American way – we’re all about choices. But ok, at least I got oranges.
- Produce tastes better when it’s bought from a small store. Just like when it’s bought from a Farmer’s Market in the States. Freshly harvested food is still bursting with flavor. Unless you’re canning your own vegetables, eat fresh. Slow down. Savor the orange. Stop buying in bulk. Eat what’s in season. (I know this sounds preachy, forgive me. And I know we all have good reasons for buying frozen foods or in bulk. I’m just saying maybe we need to look at those reasons. Maybe our cultural ways of operating need a revision.) Which leads me to…
- Shop small. Bakeries, butchers, newsstands, and more: small shops are wonderful. There is incredible satisfaction shopping in small stores instead of one large supermarket. Supporting individuals who focus their work on what they love, what they do best, and providing what other people need: This is the real heart of community. We’ve been saying this for quite a while now: shop locally. But the truth is deeper. This is how we get to know our neighbors, how we develop relationships with others whose work impacts our lives. When currency crumbles, we will still have this: the ability to share our talents. Not a dollar for dollar kind of bartering but a value exchange of what sustains us emotionally and physically. Sing me a song and I will cook for you. Knit me a scarf and I will massage your shoulders. Oranges for eggs. Tutoring for baked goods. A story for hanging my shelves. Utopian? Maybe. But our current system in the states isn’t working, so why not return to something simpler?
- I love freshly baked goods. Oh my heavens, what a treat to eat a croissant again! And today, I will risk a baguette with prosciutto and cheese. I’ve been gluten-free since 2008. I’m not celiac, but certainly have a profound sensitivity, what I’ve long called, “intense intestinal distress.” When it hits, I’m doubled over in pain. The cramping, bloating, and gas is off the charts. Ah, but in Italy! Every single day I have indulged in a pastry. I am still taking enzymes, probiotics, and prebiotics. But something about the gluten is different here. Now if only I could get my hands on some cannoli!
- Fresh air is a necessity. Even when you can’t go out and walk the streets or stroll in the park. Open your windows. Put on a jacket. If you have a balcony, stand on it. If you have a back yard, sit in it. We all need fresh air. The earth is grateful for this break from all our activity. Slowly, slowly, she is recovering. She needs this rest as much as we do; she is healing. We will too.
- People are people everywhere. Some are nice. Some are enthusiastic. Some look at me with suspicion. Some only mumble a greeting after I cheerily say, “Buongiorno!” Some say nothing at all. Others just turn away. And then, just now, as I’m writing, an old man walking his dog in the train station lot below stops and looks up at me. I wave. He waves back. Meanwhile, my neighbor across the street on her balcony tries to ignore me. And then, as if tuned into my thoughts, another woman walking her dog in the same lot below also looks up at me. I smile and say, “bella cane” (beautiful dog). She smiles. She says, “English?” Her command of the language is less than mine of Italian, but when she asks if I am on holiday, I tell her I am here for four weeks and she is pleased. Very pleased. She smiles brightly and lingers a bit longer while we both watch her dog run in circles. And then she waves and says, “Good-bye!”
- We are not alone. We are never alone. Even when you feel lonely. Reach out. There is way too much technology now to stay isolated. Not globally, not individually. Every single person matters. People want to hear from you. We need to hear from you, from each other. Wave. Smile. Say hello. Stay in touch. Four hundred years ago, John Donne wrote, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” This Me First mentality that has swept the United States needs to stop. We’re all in this together. “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
18. I really only need 1 pan, 1 pot, 1 plate, 1 bowl, 1 cup, 1 glass, 2 knives, 2 forks, and 1 large wooden spoon. Of course, if you visit, I’ll need double. And if more visit, we can each bring our own supplies.
19. Toilet paper rolls are small. Like smaller than I ever remember seeing in the states, way before “double-roll” became a thing. Really small. Which leads me to my last observation:
20. Bidets. We all need a bidet.