They say there is no better way of understanding your own culture than observing it from a foreigner’s point of view. They are right. It was not until I moved to another Country that I actually noticed a number of facts about Italy that I had always taken for granted and that turned out to be weird, curious or utterly incomprehensible to my friends and colleagues from all over the world. It all boils down to a very basic fact of course: the way we are used to working, socialising, traveling and living may seem like the only sensible way of doing any of those things, but it is in fact strictly connected to the geographical and cultural environment in which we grow up. When we travel, we come into contact with a variety of customs and traditions, and the way in which we approach habits that are not a close fit with our own eventually shapes our attitude towards the rest of the world. In my personal experience, curiosity, respect and an open mind make up the healthiest way of exploring foreign cultures. And it is with this attitude in mind that I set out on yet another attempt at discarding cultural stereotypes and offering you 6 interesting facts you never knew about Italy.
1. Not all gelato is created equal
One of the things that I found most puzzling when I first moved out of Italy was everyone’s weird obsession with gelato. I mean, it is very nice of you to call it by its Italian name, but surely it’s just ice-cream? What’s so exceptional about it? And then, of course, I learnt that gelato is actually an Italian invention and that the best ice-cream in the world is still made using original Italian recipes. Given how keen everyone is on gelato though, I found it strange that most tourists, when visiting Italy, were going for the wrong sort of ice-cream parlour and by wrong I mean “tourist-trap”. There are a few simple guidelines that might help you tell real good gelato from bad, flashy, processed fluff. As a general rule, steer clear of anything too eye-catching: intense yellow banana, deep magenta strawberry and bright green mint do not exist in nature and are sure to be made from artificial mixes with plenty of colouring and flavouring agents and, if they were ever shown a picture of a banana, a strawberry or a mint leaf, they weren’t looking. Real gelato has tamer hues and generally does not make for a great photo-op, but it will taste infinitely better. Think of the colour you would get if you made a certain flavour milkshake at home: the closer you can get to that, the higher the chance your ice-cream is actually a proper gelato.
2. There are two independent states within Italy
No, seriously, there are and we find that every bit as difficult to wrap our heads around as you do, despite being used to our long-time neighbours. The best known independent state on Italian soil is, of course, the Vatican City. Most tourists don’t realise that, when crossing the Tiber and heading down Via della Conciliazione, that they are actually leaving Italy and entering a different Country, with its own laws, courts, currency (in theory, at least), stamps, healthcare system and army (the Swiss Guard, known for what is probably the flashiest official uniform in modern history, probably due to the fact that it is anything but modern). The Vatican is also the only State in the world that physically locks its gates at night and yes, there are parts of it that you are not allowed to visit. Our other peculiar neighbour is the Republic of San Marino (a.k.a. The Most Serene Republic of San Marino, a title this Country once shared with the Republic of Venice). This micro-state measures under 25 square miles in size, with a population of just over 30.000 and yet it has one of the steadiest economies in Europe. Relying mainly on financial services and tourism, this tiny corner of land North-East of the Apennine mountains is wealthier than most Countries in Europe in terms of GDP per capita and it holds the peculiar record of containing more cars than people. The Republic of San Marino is the oldest surviving constitutional republic in the world, having evolved from a monastic enclave formed in 301 and having had a constitution since the 16th century.
3. It is illegal to walk out of a shop without a receipt
That only applies when you have actually bought goods or services of course, but it is extremely important and it holds true for bars, cafes and restaurants too. Every monetary transaction has to be accompanied by a bill or receipt and tax police inspectors (Guardia di Finanza) have been known to check customers just out of shops and restaurants for proof of payment (this is a rare occurrence, but not as rare as some would like to think). This measure was put in place to fight tax evasion and, if the customer fails to exhibit a bill for their latest purchase, both them and the shop or restaurant can be fined. While it is the shop owner’s responsibility to provide you with a viable bill for the exact amount you paid, it is your responsibility to hold on to it until you are at least 100 metres from the establishment. Internal economic concerns aside, it does make sense for you to hold on to your bills if you are travelling from outside the EU, since you will be able to claim back part of the VAT costs. This is also an excellent way of spotting fake goods: if you are buying from a street stall and the seller is not willing to provide you with a receipt, that 10 € Armani handbag is probably a fake.
4. Galileo is literally giving you the finger
Well, not you personally, but all of us. We have been known to collect religious relics in the form of garments, skulls, bones and assorted limbs, which are attributed to saints and religious figures and often difficult to account for. More than a few saints, all things considered, turned out to have way more fingers, noses and ears than they were ever entitled to. There is, however, a wholly secular relic that you will find in the Galileo Museum in Florence. Galileo was an Italian scientist whose studies and discoveries laid the foundations for what we understand to be modern physics and astronomy. He was prosecuted by the Roman Inquisition for his staunch defence of heliocentrism – the notion that the earth revolves around the sun – which was strongly opposed by the Catholic Church in his time, the official doctrine supporting geocentrism – the notion that the sun revolves around the earth. Galileo was tried, convicted, forced to recant and sentenced to lifetime house-arrest. After his death, a florentine erudite by the name of Anton Francesco Gori decided to take advantage of Galileo’s mortal remains being moved in 1737 to separate his middle finger from the rest of his body and display it like a relic. The finger was exhibited in a variety of locations before being acquired by the museum.
5. Italy has an excellent healthcare system
Not a perfect one, by any stretch of the imagination, but a very good one when compared to most western countries. According to the World Health Organization, the average life expectancy in Italy is 83 years (it is 81 in the UK, just over 78 in the US and just under 82 in Germany) and the national health system is deemed to be the second best after the French one. Its main drawbacks are due to the level of service wildly varying from city to city and often from hospital to hospital, with waiting lists for procedures sometimes impossibly long, but its merits so far seem to outweigh the faults. The system is entirely public and State funded, meaning that every citizen is granted free healthcare from birth and where fees apply – which is never for life-saving treatments – they are minimal. Over the past decades a private health sector has also flourished and it often sparks controversy in that it creates a divide between levels of services that citizens can access depending on their wealth. The bottom line, however, is that if you happen to fall ill or have an accident while visiting Italy, you will always be taken care of in a public hospital, if you so choose, and never be presented with a bill for it.
6. The oldest University in the world is still in operation
I have already told you about Bologna and its celebrated University, famous for being the oldest one in the world. It has existed as an institution since 1088 and it currently comprises 11 schools and has campuses in several cities in the region of Emilia Romagna and, puzzlingly, a branch in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This egregious seat of learning caters to students from all over the world and offers courses in both science and humanities, from Mathematics and Medicine to Law and Political Studies, from Architecture to Literature, from Physics to Sociology and many more. Its illustrious alumni includea number of historically relevant personalities such as Pico della Mirandola, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Albrecht Dürer and Pier Paolo Pasolini. In recent years, the best known professor at the University of Bologna was the late lamented philosopher Umberto Eco.