Living in Italy FAQ: Italian vs. Italian-American

Cappuccino Loves Italy Every Monday I'll be adding a new post to our "Living in Italy FAQ" series. With a new baby in Casa Hash and very little time for personalized email responses, I'm answering the questions we get asked most often and archiving them on the site for future reference. Enjoy!

QUESTION: What has surprised you most about Italians?

This is a question we get alot via email and in person when we meet new expats for the first time. The answer for me isn't so much about Italians themselves, but instead how different Italian-Americans and Italians really are. We Italian-Americans love to call ourselves Italian, but the fact is that the two cultures are very, very different. I don't mean that as a good or bad thing for either group, but it is definitely true. I was caught off-guard initially by it.

When you think about it, it's crazy that a subset of people identify so strongly with a foreign culture they actually know very little about. Even though I grew up in a very Italian-American family, we didn't speak Italian around the house and never visited the homeland. I grew up in a heavily Italian-American area and I would say this is the same for most people that I knew. We all always identified as Italian though, even though we were all typically 2-3 generations removed from a real connection to Italy.

I'll never forget a time in college when I wrote a travel essay about Venice that wasn't entirely positive. One of my classmates said she read it out loud to her Italian roommate who was offended by it. I asked, "Where in Italy is she from, Venice?" and she said "New Jersey." I asked if she spoke Italian. She said, "No."  I asked if she had ever been to Venice or Italy. The answer was also "No." I'm not making fun of this girl, just relaying a story that shows how strongly we Italian-Americans identify with this country...even though many families haven't been back in generations.

There are of course similarities that these two groups share that haven't been lost with the generations: a focus on family and a love of food. But, there are so many intangible and unexplainable differences. I think a lot of Italian-American tourists come to visit expecting to fit right in and it doesn't necessarily happen. In my experience Italian-Americans are very warm and welcoming from the start; most Italians are harder nuts to crack. Both cultures treat you like family, however, once you get to know them.

Would fellow expats agree with me? Please weigh in! The difference may be sharper to me because I live in Florence (which I would consider a more reserved city), as opposed to somewhere further south.