11 Things Americans Can Learn from Italians About Living Passionately
My first time there, but surely not my last, I sought out to understand how Italians from all over live with passion so that you can learn how to add a little bit more of it to your life!
Give up control to experience more of life’s pleasant surprises
Control is a big thing in my family, but traveling doesn’t really allow for it, and neither does the Italian culture. When I arrived in Venice, I pictured a sparkling city situated atop a shimmering Adriatic Sea. But it was raining sideways, and the public water taxi from the airport to my hotel was so slow I thought about swimming there. Upon arriving at one of the most gorgeous hotels I’d ever seen, the Hilton Molino Stucky, a fabulous desk personnel asked me and my friends and fellow travelers how we were doing. I said something about the dreariness of the rain. They handed me an umbrella and told me to go explore. I realized then that the rain was winning, and I just had to go with it. If not for this person’s subtle gesture, I might have succumbed to jet lag for the rest of the day. After venturing out that first night, I woke up in the hotel’s beautiful suite with a view of the canal shimmering from the sun’s rays. Everything came full circle. The more I let go, the more all surprises, rain or shine, felt pleasant. (Here are other reasons you should feel optimistic about the rain.)
Take your time
My second night in Venice was met with an incredible dining experience at The Glam restaurant. But I noticed that dinner was… an event! I was utterly astounded by the length of time I was there. First of all, dinners don’t start until after 8 p.m., and they involve multiple courses that take up at least two hours of your time. The reason for this is to enjoy everything slowly, which ultimately allows you to remain in the present moment. The dishes at The Glam were small in size but large in flavor profile. This allowed you to have one-bite pleasures perfect for pairing with a glass of wine and discussing the art of the dish with your server or table mate. Too often do we go through drive-throughs or gobble down our food standing up in our kitchen just to get it out of the way. The Italian way of dining can teach you to slow down, use all your senses, and appreciate the company of others. Here are some more tips on eating mindfully at every meal.
Find pleasure in the unexpected
As a tourist, I found my need for control thrown out of whack at the train stations. They can be overwhelming—people pushing past you; confusion ensuing. You’re trying to watch your bag while also buy your ticket to the right place at the right time. You’re hungry, thirsty, and sweating. It’s crowded and chaotic. If you try to avoid it, you will get stuck in it; you will anger yourself. If you go with it and laugh at the mayhem, the entire experience will be more pleasurable. If you have passion for pleasure, it will always win over your habit to hurry up and be hasty. And remember, sometimes the wrong train station will get you to the right destination. (Love a good train ride? These are the best in America.)
Celebrate every moment
After one long and confusing day navigating the train system in Venice, I made it to Rome, and then eventually to my hotel, the Palazzo Manfredi, which overlooked the Colosseum—one of the most recognizable, and beautiful, structures in the whole world. (Ever wondered how the world’s biggest monuments are cleaned? Here’s how.) “Please, follow me to the rooftop for a glass of prosecco,” the front desk attendee said. The sun was low enough that it glistened through the Colosseum’s many openings, a site I got to ogle over while raising my glass of complimentary prosecco with friends for no reason at all but because that’s what you do when you arrive somewhere new. It was one of many times I was met with a complimentary glass of prosecco, and I soon realized Italians’ zest for life makes for small celebrations in everything they do. Arriving itself is a reason to raise your glass. Upon arriving at Mirabelle Restaurant, a glamorous rooftop location that offers romantic city views and a glimpse of the Vatican, I asked about this glass of prosecco I didn’t request. I came to find out it is simply part of “the art of welcoming people and creating multi-sensory experiences.” If this is the art of welcoming, sign me up! Why do we only celebrate when big events occur? Isn’t every moment important? Whether it’s checking in to a hotel or sitting down for just another dinner, the Italians aren’t biased about when to celebrate.
Keep it simple
Americans have a tendency to pull out all the stops for guests, especially when it comes to cuisine. Upon arriving in Rome, I noticed something I wasn’t expecting: a big bowl of pasta is just that: a big bowl of pasta! During my dining experience at Il Giardino in Rome, I started to question this simplicity. Where is all the sauce? Where are all the ingredients? I knew the dish I had ordered would be amazing — Italy had done me well thus far — but I was surprised by how wrong I had been. I pictured mounds of sauce and cheese. But the reality was noodles you could see. “Il Giardino conceptualizes simplicity, passion, and elegance while paying great attention to the details,” Chef Fabio Ciervo told me. The end result is a simple dish that’s simply delicious. Italians don’t want to stress themselves out, and so they are big fans of no-fuss food. Their level of sophistication is the result of few ingredients of the highest quality. Save your blood, sweat, and tears for something else, because when it comes to cooking, a little goes a long way, and is better for you too! (Check out these brilliant cooking shortcuts if you like making dinner in a jiffy.)
Put some meaning in your greetings
In America, how often do people smile, say good morning, good afternoon, or good evening to everyone they come across? It’s the thing to do in Italy, and it makes a difference. When traveling here, I noticed that pretty much anyone I came in contact with, even if for a split-second, was adamant about greeting me with one of the following Italian greetings: ciao (hello, hi), salve (hi; bye), buongiorno (Hello; good morning; goodbye [formal]), and buona sera (hello; good evening; goodbye [formal]). They are used so often that it just becomes second nature. Italians don’t have to know each other to be kind and smile as they say hello or good morning. Walking through Rome on my last day, I stopped at every landmark I could, before exhausting myself at the top of the Spanish Steps that led me to the magnificent Hassler Hotel. Along the way, many buongiornos were exchanged, winks included. But the most meaningful greeting I received was here, at the Hassler. Choosing to eat at the hotel’s charming garden restaurant, the Palm Court, the hotel’s president and general manager, Roberto E. Wirth greeted me with a type of graciousness that exudes Italian’s passion for life. Deaf from birth, he spoke purposefully as he told me that he would read my lips as I discussed my time in Rome, and where I live in the States. He then told me about his childhood, his time spent in college in New York, and his business. He wanted to know who I was and hoped I would have interest in his world as well. He taught me, in those moments before sitting down to another countless bowl of incredible pasta, to take time to get to know the people around you. A greeting can be just a hello, but it can also enrich someone’s entire day. (Take a look at these conversation starters that will surely make you more interesting.)
Everyone is famiglia
The trek from Rome to Positano is not for the faint of heart. Trains, ferries, and hikes up the steep hill of this Amalfi Coast cliffside village toward your hotel are exhausting. But the end result is a slice of heaven perched above the sensational Mediterranean Sea. With so many people filtering out of all the nooks and crannies of Positano, it can be hard to feel like you have space. But Italians don’t consider space a luxury, because they are more focused on making everyone feel important and included. There is no imaginary bubble around you, because you are famiglia, or family. On a planned beach day to Arienzo Beach Club that required a shuttle service from and to the dock in Positano, the passion for family came alive. On the way there, the driver of the boat stopped and asked for our camera. He wanted us to get a shot on the boat with the quintessential Positano cliff, riddled with pastel-colored businesses and homes, behind us. We didn’t ask for it, and he didn’t ask for anything in return—a common theme in Italy. Situated on the Arienzo Bay, the club was a tiny piece of rustic real estate. My travel buddies and I swam in the sea, drank Spritz under our orange umbrellas, and eventually made our way up to the restaurant for a late lunch. The wooden, al-fresco space had views for days. As we sipped more prosecco and ate caprese salad and fresh octopus, I soon realized something very special happening: the entire restaurant staff was sitting together, passing bowls of pasta around, a little kid sitting on the man who shuttled us to the club. Amalia, our server, filled me in. “Our beach club was founded by my parents, Ada and Peppe 25 years ago. The idea was to propose the local genuine and healthy cuisine to Positano International customers.” But just as much as this is a beach club and restaurant, it is a place for family to flourish. Amalia’s daughter sits on her grandfather Peppe’s lap as she slurps down food and plays with his cheeks. I look around, and it feels like we are at a massive family event — little tables scattered throughout, uncorked bottles of white wine in ice buckets, plates everywhere. We are in bathing suits. My hair is dripping. The owners are asking us how our food is in between bites of their own. It is beautiful. “My mom dressed the chef’s clothes and started cooking the dishes of the ‘Positanese Tradition,’” Amalia says. “Eggplant parmigiana, buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes, gnocchi, caprese and lemon ravioli, spaghetti with anchovies and cherry tomatoes, spaghetti with mussels, fresh fish handed from the fisherman every day.” Her father, Peppe, dressed like a “cicerone” and began welcoming the customs like at home. She calls it “a genuine relationship. Customers became friends soon.” The end result is constant new family through a passion for good food and good wine, and hey, a good view while you’re at it. We were famigilia that day. (Did you know having a healthy family can boost your chance of living longer?)
Keep a “bella figura”
Though it translates literally to “beautiful figure,” the term “bella figura” is actually more about maintaining a respectable public appearance. You can see this in the sleek cities of Italy and the laid back fishing villages of the Amalfi Coast. To see it in the latter, where beach life reigns supreme, is the best understanding of the importance of la bella figura. Walking throughout Positano, you will see a lot of drinking, a lot of eating, a lot of sunbathing. But you will not see people foolishly drunk, scarfing down a sandwich while walking, or wearing sweatpants. Italians respect aesthetics. I found this to be very clear upon entering my stay at Hotel Villa Franca in Positano. The staff was impeccably dressed, sure, but more so, it seemed to make sense with their surroundings. At brunch, our server wore a crisp white linen button down and gray linen pants as he asked if we wanted more Prosecco. At night, he wore a suit and tie for fine dining at Li Galli as he poured our bottle of Ripasso. I also noticed the emphasis on fragrances at Hotel Villa Franca, as I did everywhere. Various soaps and lotions for your needs. But why? This is the core of la bella figura. Italians have such a level of sophistication that remains unmatched because it is effortless. It is who they are. Villa Franca’s signature fragrance fills the hotel rooms in bottles of lotion. When I asked what it reflected, the staff said, “Elegance, art, and hospitality.”
Take a leap
I didn’t want to leave Positano, but by the time the ferry ride was over and I had stepped onto the beautiful island of Capri with my travel buddies, I was back in the moment. Italians—especially in Capri—know how to live. The depths of the luscious Mediterranean are all around you, the “sprezzatura,” the Italian word for looking effortless, is more than apparent, and there is a noticeable “yes” culture. I arrived at Il Riccio for lunch, where I thought it would be just that — a big bowl of pasta, a glass of wine, maybe a nap after. But that is not the way it works when a restaurant is built into the side of a cliff. After indulging in incredible fresh fish, we asked about swimming, to which we were lead down rocky steps that fell off into the Mediterranean — a small ladder the stepping stone. One of Il Riccio’s staff members noticed our fervor as we dove and flipped time after time into the water like dolphins. “Do you want to jump off the cliff?” he asked. I am afraid of heights. You can barely get me to hike anymore. And yet there I was, tiptoeing to the very edge of the cliff Il Riccio calls home and catapulting 30 feet down back to where I came from. Yes, I caught the “yes culture” bug, because Italians believe in taking a leap. (If you like adventure, check out this ultimate American bucket list featuring 50 iconic adventures.)
Indulge a little
Could anything be better than Positano? Perhaps Capri, where “sprezzatura,” the Italian word for looking effortless is all around. But this only brings me to my next point, which is that Italians have no shame in indulging. Have the glass of Prosecco, have the pasta. Dress up. Smell good. Have the view! When trying to pick a hotel on Capri, one answer kept coming up from Italians: get the best place you can, with the best view you can, because you won’t be doing this next week. So my friends and I stayed at the Hotel Punta Tragara. From an incredible feast at Punta Tragara’s Monzù Restaurant to sweeping ocean views from our room’s balcony, we surely fulfilled the indulgence Italians are known for. But Italians prove indulgence doesn’t have to cost anything, either. Right outside of Punta Tragara is the best vantage point of the Faraglioni—three towering rock formations that jut out from the Mediterranean just off the island’s coast. It’s a breathtaking view, and you will see people quietly gathering at the Punta Tragara Belvedere scenic overlook to take it all in. The atmosphere is quiet, and people seem to just be indulging in the natural beauty without the need to take too many photos or discuss it with their friends and loved ones. I found this same feeling in Sorrento while staying at the Grand Hotel Cocumella, where a lookout point provided me with a breathtaking view of the Bay of Naples. We had such little time in the city, and didn’t really have time to just sit and stare, yet it was an indulgence I gave myself because having passed it up wouldn’t have been the Italian way. Italians’ passion for indulgence is rooted in the idea that to live well, you must not deprive yourself. It’s similar to the philosophy on drinking: drink to enjoy not to get drunk. The Italian culture has a “perché no?” take on indulgence. “Perché no?” translates to “why not?” Dinner at L’Olivo Restaurant was a great reminder of this. The rich and elevated food we got to try, including an entire candy bar cart, wasn’t meant to be gluttonous. Tiny portions were meant to give you just the right amount of indulgence. “Perché no?” is meant to remind you that it’s okay to stay at the best hotel, eat types of food you normally wouldn’t, drink when you want, and take in that view no matter what else you have going on, so long as you don’t overdo it. (Love a good view? Check out this list of hotel rooms with the best views.)
It’s impossible to ignore history in Italy, and that’s because it’s been so well-preserved, and put on such a pedestal. Modernism is second in this country, mostly due to the fact that every building is an artifact of the past so beautiful replacing it with anything else would be a shame. Leaving the Amalfi Coast felt like a crime, but arriving in Florence, and eventually making my way back to Venice, proved to be just as spectacular—a gentle reminder to do as the Italians do: don’t compare, just be in the moment! Staying at the Westin Excelsior in Florence felt like going back in time in a very special way. Cities like Venice, Rome, and Florence are abundant in museums whose sole purpose it is to recognize history, but you can find it everywhere, including churches, restaurants, and your hotel. The Westin Excelsior is a bedrock of historical memories—seven centuries of Florentine history to be exact. From serving as a church in the 13th century to serving as a palace many well-respected families called home, you can feel and see the importance of preserving the past here. The result is an impeccable building with unique Renaissance features. The rooms, decorated in period style, are an ode to the Florentine tradition. Though a sleekness of modern day is highly sought after, Italians believe tradition is of the utmost importance. They want to feel history in everything they see and do. Likewise, the Westin Europa & Regina in Venice is the result of the joining of five 18th and 19th-century palaces. Careful restoration throughout the years has ensured that guests relive history. This passion for history shines through the importance of art, the desire for meticulous restoration, for simple food throughout all of Italy. To appreciate time long ago provides a humbleness that is very easy to lose in our day to day lives. (Intrigued by history? Here are some things your teacher may have lied to you about!)