Sharp Monica

An honest voice in Italian paradise.

Florence: Italian Rules / Le Regole Italiane

Part of living in a culture is accepting received ideas, ranging from the mundane to the philosophical in nature. When plates shift and we find ourselves in a new culture, whether on domestic ground or abroad, received ideas are suddenly cast in high relief.

Italy maintains many received ideas that we do not know in America. Perhaps we knew them at one time, and lost them; perhaps we never knew them. If we are children of Ellis Island immigrants, I am positive that our recent forebears knew and observed basic received ideas handed down through culture, maintaining the health and well-being of the family.

Along these lines, some months back I covered the topic of the scarf versus the medical scarf in Italy, and how everyone is responsible for following basic ground rules of good health so that, should they fall into the misfortune of poor health, they cannot be immediately blamed for refusing to obey a handful of simple rules. I have been gathering a few more of these basic guidelines, and present them here for your enjoyment and edification.

Exposed skin. The purpose of attire, besides helping you look your best, is to ensure that one never shivers nor sweats. One must maintain one’s body in a state of environmental equilibrium, as much as it is possible. This means never being too thinly or too warmly attired, depending on the season and the weather. Do not bring shame upon your mother, father, grandmother, and aunts by failing to monitor and maintain such simple variables that can quickly and easily be visually verified. Check yourself. Look down, or look in a mirror, or ask any small Italian standing nearby. Are your wrists exposed? fingers? ankles? heaven forbid, NOT YOUR NECK. If any of these danger zones appear overly exposed, take steps at once to put on socks, gloves, a shirt with longer sleeves, or a scarf/better scarf/second scarf. It is always appropriate to keep wearing Fashionable Scarf underneath Medical Scarf. Under no circumstances are you expected to forego one for the other. Do not give up good health for fashion, nor fashion for good health. You can, and should, protect both your health and la bella figura. There is no zero-sum game on this.

La maglia della salute. Literally the “knit shirt of health,” this traditional wardrobe piece is cotton on the outside, ideally brushed soft wool on the inside, and is worn throughout the cold months for the purpose of its name: to ensure your good health. La maglia della salute will guarantee that no colpa d’aria (strike of air) wends its way to your torso, where even cavemen knew all your vital organs are housed. You gotta keep that torso covered and safe with warmth and security. Your health will thank you, along with all your organs, which will all reap the benefits of soft merino insulation.

Jason found me a version of a maglia della salute at Decathlon, an Italian version of REI, for about six euros. This was when he bought all the apparel for skiing in December for the kids.  I am pretty sure it is just a base layer for skiing and various snow sport, and it is not natural fiber, but it is brushed inside and feels warm. Victor has one too, and we wear them for days on end.

Apparently the maglia vera della salute can be purchased at the Cascine open market behind the Fortezza. I would love to have one; the cotton + brushed merino sounds like the kind of mouse nest I need. I’ve got a Canadian named Margi from church on it for me; she’s from Vancouver, and knows that keeping warm is no laughing matter. I told her I’d pay her a handsome markup if she can bring me one that is traditional and Italian and not a skier’s base layer. And I might wear it all winter long until I stink like it’s the quattrocento. And I will be so warm.

Freddino/freddina. Are you a person who could be characterized as freddino/freddina (chilly, easily chilled)? Apparently I am, which makes sense to me, since we live in the bottom of the Arno river valley in a city made of stone with no insulation and terrible heating. Even when I am wearing two sweaters, two scarves, socks, and wool slippers, it is fair to say that I am still very much freddina. This is a term applied to me especially by Italians of a certain age, who may have been raised with a wood-burning hearth as a heat source, and who never took off their maglia della salute from Ognissanti to Pasquetta.

Let’s say it is 39F and raining outside, and I come up from locking up my bike after a quick commute across old flagstones filled with puddles, soaked and freezing.
I will be told, upon entering my office, wet and shivering, “Pero Monica, tu sei freddina!”
This is cold to you!? they ask me. Are you seriously cold?
Hey, Italy, no offense, but I doubt you’ve spent time at a pole, or in the Arctic.
Clearly my freezing has nothing at all to do with the weather.
“Well, do you like summer?” they asked me this week.
“I actually hate summer,” I said. “It is my number four favorite season.”
They looked at me like I had just grown an extra nose.
“You do not like weather,” they said.
“I hate freezing,” I said. “And sweating.”
They ought to understand this, right? A basic Italian principle. See #1 above.

They are all in collective denial about how cold the winter is in Tuscany. Or perhaps they have simply been trained since childhood to not admit to feeling chilly, because heat costs money, and that caldaia may as well be a nuclear reactor for how reluctant people are to turn it on, as well as its associated exorbitant cost. In fact, I have learned this year that “conservare la caldaia” is an idiom. Gotta conserve that caldaia, people, no joke. Our utilities for the month of December ran to over 700 euros. And we were still freddini that whole month, as a state of being as well as a status.

Dolce e caffe. Just a note here about the proper order for the end of a meal. If you opt into dolce (dessert) after your secondo (entree), no one is going to bring you a coffee until you have eaten the entire dolce. I am talking crumbs on a saucer and a tiny fork licked clean. This is different from the US, where we like to sip, nibble, sip, nibble, alternating the coffee with the dessert. I think we lifted this bad habit from our German and Scandinavian forebears. But this is problematic, because how will your stomach receive the necessary punctuation of espresso, signalling the end of a meal, if you are sipping it with your dessert? This is just poor mealtime editing.

Get it together! Eat the dessert. Patience. Await the coffee. Drink the coffee. Good. Now everyone, including your stomach, knows that the meal is complete.

This rule also applies to a snack at a coffee bar. Eat the sweet thing. Then drink the coffee. Do not intermingle the sweet thing and the coffee when consuming. You’ll screw up your digestion, or worse, and won’t have anyone but yourself to blame when you get put on a white rice diet for the next two days to correct your system.

Eat the sweets on the right. Then, and only
then, drink the espresso on the left.

Coffee and milk. Returning to the US now, I am always shocked at how much milk we want to drink with our coffee, at late hours! We’re like babies with bottles the way we nurse those huge sugary milky drinks from Starbucks at 6 pm. The time to have milk with your coffee is prior to 10 am. You can order a macchiato, or a macchiatino, or a macchiatone, for the rest of the day, but it is not going to contain more than a splash or two of milk. Bars frequented by tourists in Firenze centro will make them a cappucino at 4 pm, but I have been to plenty of other Italian towns where such an order elicited a stern lecture from the barista about needing to educate your palate and not be a baby. Also, if the espresso shot is pulled right, it will be graced by a thin layer of crema at the top, that sweet golden coffee nectar that tells you the coffee was well roasted and the barista knew what they were doing. You might not even need any sugar if the crema is good.

Coffee and water. Not everywhere, but at my local bar, Caffe Paszkowski, they always give me a small glass of sparkling water with my espresso. Why? To drink first, to cleanse the palate, prior to enjoying your espresso, which is a gift. Hydrate a bit; front load some moisture. Then enjoy your espresso. Then drink the last bit of your water so you don’t have old lady coffee mouth. I used to save all my water for after the coffee, until I got a scowl one day from Don Ciro, and a reprimand to “drink the water first.” Read on for how I came to know his name.

The actual piega on the day
the musical broke out in Caffe Paszkowski.
Seemed pretty normal to me, this hair.
But to the baristi, it confirmed something. 

La bella figura. Never underestimate the importance of looking your very best even on a normal day. There is no such thing as a normal day in Italy! Today is always a great day to look your best. Case in point: I had been a regular patron at Caffe Paszkowski for a year and a half. Once or twice per day, coffee, lunch, sometimes two coffees. I knew all the staff, but not by name, because there is no real way to introduce yourself, as a woman, to a caffe full of impeccably groomed and suited male baristi without coming off as really weird and obviously foreign, which I can’t stand.

So I never said, oh, by the way, ragazzi, I’m Monica. They didn’t need to know that; they were nice to me and addressing me with vanity honorifics, such as professoressa, dottoressa, direttrice, which had nothing at all to do with any of my actual qualifications, but are just titles they use when they want to make people blush, as far as I can tell.

One day in December I walked in to Paszkowski after a successful piega (blowout) at a salon close by.

The baristi sprang to life like it was a Broadway musical.
“Buongiorno bella! Io sono Don Ciro … questo e Michele … quello e Lorenzo… Lui e Rolando. E Lei, signora, come si chiama …?”
I was shocked. Who expected this?
I am sure I was five shades of pink.
“Monica,” I said, looking around.
They all nodded, “Monica, bene. Monica.”
The Italians always like my name. Thanks again, Mom and Dad, for such a nice Italian name.
I heard their commiseration behind the counter.
Then they started quizzing me.
“What’s his name?” Pointing to the guy in charge.
“And his?” His first mate.
And so on, until I had proven that I too remembered all their names.
Bene, bene, bene.
Now I am greeted by name, even on days that I look like a Parisian commoner from Les Miz (not a fresh piega day.)
I am still called cara, or bella, but the younger baristi seem to me to blush ever so slightly when I greet them with a “Ciao, Lorenzo” or “Ciao, Rolando.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed my brief tour of compiled and observed Italian rules. I will be honest when I say, I am stressed when I am not in the know about local culture beyond the most superficial of information, and I find it exhilarating and entertaining when I am learning, so I am happy to pass along my experiential knowledge.

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