Is Italy becoming normal?

I had the pleasure this year of spending part of my holidays in northern Italy. Despite the prolonged recession that you can see the place is currently experiencing, it is still a rich country with good food, great wine, and great scenery. Indeed, there is no real feeling of general gloom there at all, with most Italians still happily having their extended mid-day lunch, enjoying the local Gelateria, and happily chatting about opera and politics. Tourism around Venice and the Alps was brisk; road and other construction was still impressive; and the fertile fields were full of neatly planted new grape vines, so in no way would I say that country is grinding to a halt.

Some charming cultural idiosyncrasies of the Italians were still on display. For instance, nowhere could one find a take-away coffee: the ritual of drinking coffee is taken very seriously there and it would be an affront to an Italian to enjoy their coffee from a paper cup away from the place it was brewed. No no, good coffee needs to be savoured.

Also, the Italians have in no way lost their pride in how great their country is. You will for instance still be hard-pressed to find Chinese or Thai restaurants there: they clearly refuse to eat almost anything else but what they consider truly Italian. No French cuisine or even American hamburgers have replaced the trattorias, pasticerias, or pizzerias.

Yet, there are many clear signs that Italy is normalising and becoming just like the rest of Europe. The most glaring example is Venice itself. When I visited it 30 years ago, it was a poorly run place: smelly, dirty, and a tourist rip-off. Pigeon shit was everywhere, the water was close to sewage, nothing happened on time and few understood English.

The best example of how Venice has changed is actually the price of having a coffee. When I was in Venice with my family 30 years ago, we got ripped off. We looked at the menu, which said a coffee was 500 lires (or some such number). Thinking this to be a reasonable price, we sat down, ordered a coffee, had a coffee and were subsequently charged 5000 lires for a coffee! What turned out to be the case? Well, the coffee was still 500 lires, but you paid extra for having a seat, being served, and enjoying the shade of a parasol! None of those things were clear from the menu and so you paid ten times what you thought you were going to pay and felt cheated and laughed at as well.

In comparison, the price you pay now anywhere in Venice, no longer in lires but in Euros of course, is the price that is on the menu. Indeed, on many menus it says explicitly that there is no extra charge for service, seats, and parasols. Clearly, the Venetians worked out that foreigners had told each other about the bad old days and collectively decided to clean up their act and have a city-wide policy of clear pricing.

More generally, Venice is now a smoothly run tourist-oriented operation, almost Germanic in its efficiency. The city now employs falcons to keep the pigeon population within acceptable numbers; the sewage system has been cleaned up; the feel of the city is carefully controlled with no modern building types allowed anywhere near the tourists; the gondoliers have been organised such that their prices and services are clear beforehand; boats to and fro the islands of Venice run frequently and on time; restaurants open at 6 in stead of at 10, etc.

Venice is not the only place that has normalised in the last 30 years. The new generation of Italians speaks reasonable English; mountain huts have websites and accept foreign membership cards; and Italian drivers are now much more considerate than they used the be. You thus hardly hear any loud beeps anymore, whereas it used to be a cacophony all over the place!

In short, slowly but surely, Northern Italy has become much like Southern Germany and France: rich, clean, well-mannered and safe. It even sounds a bit dull, doesn’t it? One almost wishes for the old days in which traffic was chaotic and noisy; you paid double price as a foreigner; and every Italian male above the age of 5 leered at anything blonde walking past!

On that final point: colour shampoo has flooded the Italian dating market with lots of fake-blonds, which in turn has lead to a normal market price.

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11 years ago

I was last there in around 2000 or so. We flew into Milan airport and disembarkation was outside on the tarmac. There were no lines getting out of the plane. In true south European style it was everyone for themselves. Anyways we walking down the steps and dudes were lighting up cigarettes. Lighting up with the freaking engines not too far away and what I thought was a refueling van making its way under a wing of the plane.

It made me laugh and also made me quicken my step to get the hell away from the plane asap.

derrida derider
derrida derider
11 years ago

When Italians start forming orderly queues is when we will know dull Northern ways have finally entered their souls.

11 years ago

“What a load of bollocks I did on my holidays.”

I was in Milan a couple of months ago and had the aeroplane-terminal bus ride experience and bought a takeaway espresso.

That Venice is now a proper upmarket amusement park as opposed to a living city is no mystery, either. Try visiting Mestre next time and see if that changes your view on how “rich, clean, well-mannered and safe” Northern Italy has become. Frankly, most of the non-touristy parts are rusting post-industrial concrete jungles filled with depressed crumblies and frustrated youth. So, yeah, Italy is becoming more like the rest of Northern Europe. Brava!

8 years ago

Hi, I’m from northern Italy. I find your article very good, and I disagree with the comments, especially the one from Fydor. I’d like to say that Milan is a cosmopolitan city, Venice is always full of million tourists, we have a big issue with airports, however our cities are clean, you won’t see anybody throwing garbage on the streets, people pick up from the streets their dog shit, and so on. It’s not true the thing about Mestre and the frustrated and depressed youth.
What I disagree with this article, is your opinion about our ”changing behaviour”. Northern Italy has always been similar to central Europe, northern Italian guys never shouted or whistled to every blonde on the streets, it’s not they’re changed, they’ve always been this way. Even the way we drive…it has always been the same. Northern Italians are similar to southern French.
PS: I’m a natural blonde. In northern Italy natural blonde people DOES exist. A lot of blonde you’ve seen are likely natural blondes.