It is a fact that geographical stereotypes exist and they make for first-rate stand-up comedy material. We all are familiar with some of them and we all have yielded to the temptation of using them, when assessing or trying to comprehend an unfamiliar context or when defining our identity with respect to someone else. Most stereotypes happen to be wildly inaccurate generalisations, which, come to think of it, is the perfect definition of a stereotype. Despite knowing that we will almost certainly be wrong in judging someone according to a stereotype, we find it hard to let our preconceptions go. You might be surprised to learn, for instance, that what you probably believe to be the national Italian stereotype is not even that. It is in fact the Southern Italian stereotype. If you take a map of Italy and draw a horizontal line just north of Rome, you will end up with two large regions whose inhabitants might feel closer to the population of a foreign country than they feel to their fellow nationals on the other side. The divide between the North and the South of Italy is not unlike the equivalent phenomena that can be observed in the UK, France or Germany. In Italy, this has much to do with national unity being a relatively recent achievement (Italy as a Nation was born in 1861), that drew together populations that were fundamentally different and that have been finding their collective feet ever since. Are there real differences between the North and the South of Italy? Yes and no. There are stereotypes of course, but there are also customs and traditions and sometimes even we find it hard to determine which is which. A light-hearted approach is definitely going to serve you well wherever you go. In the meantime, you might want to keep in mind the following basic distinctions.
1. Work/life balance
I have mentioned this multiple times as a national achievement: being Italian is supposed to be about enjoying life, right? Working to live and not living to work, cherishing those small pleasures and ultimately be found sitting on the porch with a glass of red wine looking at the sun set on the sea. This particular stereotype is the result of two extremes, as there is literally no region of Italy which is known for such an enlightened attitude. The local stereotypes for the North and South of the Country lay at the opposite end of the spectrum. The South of Italy is generally viewed by the north as slightly too chilled, with a pronounced tendency for long coffee breaks and short weeks. It is commonly understood in the South, however, that Northeners are mindless workaholics who take no real pleasure from life. It is rather neat that the national stereotype should turn out to be a balanced version of the two, albeit leaning slightly southward.
2. Such a lovely weather (in the south of Italy)
To put it bluntly, the South does have lovely, sunny weather, while the North mostly does not. That is not a stereotype, that is a fact, with plenty of evidence to back up this claim. If you visit in august, of course the weather is likely to be stifling hot wherever you travel, with the main differences to be found between the coast and the inland. While the Ionian and Tyrrhenian regions, as well as the mountains, tend to counterbalance the heat with a healthy breeze, the eastern coast and the plains and valleys of the north tend to be humid and foggy. In winter, however, it is not uncommon to see tourists roaming the cold cities of the North in tank tops and flip-flops, with the permanently puzzled look of someone who has been conned by an evil travel agent. Generally speaking, Italy gets the average European winter weather, of which the South enjoys a milder “mediterranean” and largely snow-free version.
3. The best food in the world
Well, quite. Which “food” are you thinking of though? As we have already had occasion to say, Italian cuisine is incredibly varied and it would be a mistake to attribute the same specialities to every region. Of course you might be able to get excellent pizza outside of Naples (although many a Neapolitan will argue that it is never the same thing) and that a perfectly acceptable Panettone can be bought in the South (ditto), but there’s more to Italian food than meets the eye. Broadly speaking, the South of Italy has a strongly Mediterranean tradition, with olive oil playing a major role in most recipes. The culinary traditions of Puglia and Sicily, in particular, share several common traits with greek ones and with those of several Middle-Eastern countries, particularly Lebanon. The Northern culinary traditions are much more akin to those of Central Europe, with butter and animal fat featuring generally more often than olive oil. To this day, after all, one would be hard-pressed to find an olive tree further up north than Tuscany.
4. What time is it in Italy?
If there is one thing that Einstein and Dr Who have taught us is that time is relative. Or, to put it in Douglas Adams’ inspired words, time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so. What is not an illusion though is how jet-lagged our stomach feels when visiting a country that has different traditions to those we are used to, with regard to mealtimes. Italy and Spain are generally believed to have a more flexible concept of time-keeping than, say, Germany or Austria. This is, once again, a Southern stereotype. Many a national joke involving a strictly punctual northerner and a hopelessly late southerner has caused eyebrows to be raised and eyeballs to roll. In truth, if you presume to show up late to a business meeting you will upset your partners in Palermo just as much as in Turin. On the other hand it is true that mealtimes are traditionally different, which might be due more to Italy’s east-west orientation and subsequent daylight than anything else. In the South, for instance, it is customary to dine between 8 and 9 pm, whereas in the North 7 or 7.30 pm are generally preferred.