General Observations about Life in Italy Compared to the USA
The American Dream is rapidly transforming to become the European Dream — and Italy leads the transformation. While America has long provided great consumer, housing, and private travel abundance, these things are inherently less fulfilling, more inwardly focused, and more individualized. Indeed, some refer to America’s way of live today as a form of “Privatopia,” where quality of life ends when one steps outside their home, gets out of their car, or the iPad breaks down.
In Europe — and particularly in Italy — one finds a different way of life. In the historic Old Towns of Europe and especially Italy, it is when one steps outside their comparatively more modest home and into the splendor and neighborly sociability of the public realm that the magic begins. It is here that one finds the inherently cozy, comfortable human-scaled dimensions of the street, the charm of the ancient architecture, the pride invoked by the classical civic buildings, piazzas, and monuments, and the improved public heath induced by the lower per capita amounts of private car travel, the fresh and local foods, and the relatively high social capital found in these inherently lovable, sustainable places.
This all adds up to a European lifestyle that brings high levels of citizen joy, happiness, and self-sufficiency.
Lifestyle Differences between Italy and USA
How we Live in the USA
There is a stark contrast between America and Italy, or most of Western Europe. In America, emblematically, many of us purchase luxury homes (derisively known as “McMansions”) and buy luxury cars filled with high-tech gadgets. Others work long, stressful hours so that they can buy the latest Lexus, the most impressive suburban home, and most expensive entertainment system. Those living such a lifestyle have essentially turned inward. There is much social isolation and segregation from fellow citizens within much of America.
Segregation within the private realm of home and car.
Large numbers of Americans spend enormous amounts of time in shiny metal boxes — expensive BMWs and SUVs — stuck in traffic congestion on gold-plated highways. Many of us angrily battle with fellow citizens to rush back to their remote suburban homes after a long day at the office, where they collapse in moated, cul-de-sac’d cocoons.
For many Americans, when they step outside onto a streetside sidewalk or public park, they encounter the most empty and unpleasant public realm in the developed world, with the exception of an American urban oasis here and there.
How They Live in Italy
Western Europe – particularly in Italy — is stunningly and happily at variance from the rather bleak scene described above for much of America. The insides of most European homes and cars are noticeably modest compared to much of America, yet the community (the streets, the sidewalks, the squares — that is, the public realm), is inviting, welcoming and often a veritable paradise. Outside, in much of Europe’s public realm, there is vibrancy, sociability, a sense of place, a sense of community, people laughing, people having fun, people engaging in conversation, and really just taking time to enjoy life.
The public realm in much of historic Western Europe — available to all, regardless of economic status or ranking — is lively, sociable, picturesque, romantic, and memorable. The streets, sidewalks, and squares are often quaint and human-scaled. You tend to feel wonderfully alive as you walk amongst the large number of friendly residents who are happily outside enjoying their compact, walkable community — a community commonly surrounded by forests and farms, instead of sprawling residential subdivisions and Big Box retail strips.
Many citizens of historic European cities enjoy interaction with their community and their fellow citizens, instead of being isolated and cooped up within the private realm of expensive entertainment equipment and high-end furnishings often found inside luxury American homes. A great many Europeans enjoy longer, more relaxed, more fun, and more enjoyable breakfasts, lunches and dinners at their countless outdoor cafes that are found throughout their cities.
Italy and Western Europe's Unmatched Quality of Life
For many Americans, the goal of attaining a higher quality of life is achieved by working long hours, making lots of money, buying lots of things and then “cocooning” indoors, away from their fellow citizens, who are, by now, strangers to be suspicious of — and to do battle with each day on raging, high-speed roads during the car commute to and from work.
By contrast, many town center Europeans opt for the more relaxed and friendly joys of community life in the public realm. The community is their living room. Each day brings a friendly, serendipitous walk — La Passeggiata — in a sociable, urban Eden.
When it comes to quality of life, the Europeans do it right. The standard of living in America may be higher. But the quality of life in Europe is unmatched.
Italians Are The BEST in Sooo Many Ways!
While other ethnicities have admirable traits, as an Italian we are proud to know that Italians are the best in many, many ways. While in Italy, we are reminded that Italians have what are probably the best cars, the best food, the most gorgeous women (and men), the best gelato, the best ancient architecture, the most charming and romantic ambiance, the best wine, the best art, the best transit, and the best cities in the world.
We must admit, however, that Italians are second-rate when it comes to municipal water quality, government, and military might. Water in most of Italy is nearly undrinkable in taste, which helps explain why one sees so much bottled water in Italy. National government is notoriously awful, (Although many would question this statement given the current US government!). And the Italian military over the past century shows quite well the old adage that Italians would rather love than fight. Make amore, not guerra!
Italy is Full of Beautiful Women
Whenever I travel to Italy, I am astounded by the high percentage of Italian women who are drop-dead gorgeous and glamorous. Fortunately for me, I need to hasten to add, the most gorgeous Italian woman I’ve ever seen is my girlfriend Maggie! I speculate that one possible explanation for this is a virtuous cycle in Italy: In a culture where beauty is so highly valued (art, cars, architecture, streets, etc.), many women work very hard to look very, very attractive. That is, everything in life for many in Italy is intended to aspire to beauty.
Driving In Italy - What An Adventure
Although there have been instances where we rented a car, I don’t advise it. Highway driving on the Italian “autostrada,” although relatively high-speed, is easy to navigate with the clear signs found in Italy. However, when you exit the highway and enter a city — particularly the compact, historic, walking cities — it can be extremely stressful and expensive. You won’t understand road signs, it is difficult to follow your Google maps navigation and watch the road at the same time. Know that you WILL get lost! In addition, it will be a challenge to find parking, and when you do (after what will often be a long and difficult search), expect to pay.
We all dream of driving the exotic Italian sports car. Unfortunately, our modest budget obligated us to put aside our dreams and instead rent a little Fiat sedan. A Lamborghini would have certainly been more suitable, as we found that to keep up with Italian drivers, our average speed on the autostrada needed to be 90 mph. This speed can be rather harrowing due to the rain and narrow lanes, but when Dom “Mario Andretti” Nozzi takes the wheel, he insists that he should toss out his rearview mirror because, as what was immortally and proudly proclaimed in the movie The Gumball Rally, “what is behind me…is not important!”
In our experience, the highway signage in Italy is much clearer in providing directions than are the signs on American highways — perhaps out of necessity, given the relatively high speeds (and, therefore, the abbreviated reaction time) of driving in Italy.
Driving in Italy is a memorable experience, and can be quite an adventure. But we recommend you drive in Italy with caution.
Or better yet, avoid the stress, the headaches, the expense, the danger, and the time loss of trying to travel by car from Italian town to town: Follow our footprints by taking the train!
Superb Urban Design in Italy
As a city planner often involved in city design, my expectations for my first trip to Italy were high. I had heard, for many years, about the quaint, walkable wonders of European cities, which made me quite excited about the trip.
I was not disappointed. The Italian cities we visit in our many trips have been stupendous. Stunning. Spectacular. Italy is a cultural and culinary feast, and we greedily gobbled it up. A good nights’ sleep comes easily after a full day of walking the streets in old town historic Europe.
The Expressive Italian Language
One thing I particularly enjoy about the Italians (myself included) is that much more so than with other cultures I know of, the Italians clearly enjoy speaking their colorful, romantic language. They relish exaggerating consonants. Emphasizing verbs. Highlighting their accents. They are physically animated when they speak with a big smile on their faces. “Arrividerrrrrrrrrrrrciiiiiiiii!!!!!!”
It is fun to watch Italians speak. Once, while in Bari, I witnessed two men, both deaf, engage in a lively conversation — I could feel the exuberant intensity of the conversation. The expression and movement were much stronger than I had seen before.
Markets are also a wonderful place to see Italians come alive in expression. The chanting and singing used by vendors to draw attention to their stalls, as illustrated above in our video, is not to be missed.
The Older the Better
One of my most important insights during our travels to each of the many Italian cities we have visited is that we find that our task is to seek out the older, medieval, traditional section of the city. This is where the quality of life is high. Where one finds pleasant cafes. Romance. Charm. Beauty. A relaxed, unhurried atmosphere. Happy people.
By contrast, the newer parts of the cities are high-speed car raceways that are unpleasant and dangerous for pedestrians. Like in the USA, people are less sociable in more contemporary areas of Italian cities. And like Americans, they are more in a hurry.
It is a shame that in more recent times and more recently built areas of cities — including in Italy — the builders of these areas have abandoned the timeless tradition of designing wonderful places for a quality human habitat. And rather than learning lessons from past mistakes and improving on them (to build a better city), the builders of the newer parts of town instead are building places that are lacking in charm and beauty. Lacking in human scale and sense of place.
PRO-TIP: Avoid the newer parts of town when you travel in Italy (and Europe generally). Spend as much time as you can in the historic centers of towns you visit.
Endangered Rear-View Mirrors
In all of my time in motor vehicles (mostly buses) careening through impossibly narrow streets full of cars in Italy and other locations in Europe, I have been astounded to realize that in not a single instance has one of those drivers clipped or bumped a building or vehicle, despite countless near-misses that in some cases must have been no more than half a centimeter. So it was an astounding experience that on one day during my travels in Italy, as we are taking a bus to Catania, our bus has its side-view mirror whacked by a truck going the opposite direction. Fortunately, this does not stop our bus, despite the fact that most of the mirror is shattered and the driver must re-adjust the now loosened mirror every few kilometers.
Dinner Time for Italians is Bedtime for Americans
Amusingly, on most every night we go out to eat dinner in Italy, we go later than we normally do in America. We arrive at 7 or 8 pm. And almost always, we are the only ones in the trattoria. And each time, I worry that this lovely ristorante will soon go out of business due to lack of customers. But by 9 or 10 pm, each place would fill up with customers. Turns out that we are just not used to the late dining habits of Italianos!
Do Italians Appreciate What They Have?
When I arrive in historic Italy and walk its medieval, charming, romantic, ancient streets, I find myself filled with joy as I look around me and take in the spectacular beauty all around me. I can hardly believe how wonderful the ancient streets and buildings are. And it occurs to me that I have spent my entire life in the comparative awfulness of contemporary American communities. So when I see such charm in Italy, the contrast is so vividly striking — so absolutely different – that I am able to thoroughly appreciate what is around me in the Italian town. In other words, it takes a lifetime of living in a world of miserable buildings and roads to truly enjoy the unsurpassed charm of these old villages.
I then wonder: Many Italians have lived with this wonderful charm for their entire lives. Do they truly appreciate what they have? Or is the grass always greener somewhere else? Will they fight to protect their lovable communities? Or ruinously seek to emulate contemporary American cities?