Italy is many things to many people – a wine and food heaven, an art and architecture paradise, a cultural delight. To me, Italy is all those things but more specifically it is a place of learning and self-discovery.
Last year, I had the honor and pleasure of guiding the Tuscany and Cinque Terre Bike & Hike Adventure. It was an incredible experience that I will never forget, not only because of what we did and saw, the fun-loving people I met, and the unbelievable food I tasted, but also because I came away from this trip a changed woman.
Here a few significant life lessons learned from Italy:
Food (and espresso) is something to be revered.
I am not one to shy away from a good meal, but the reverence and emphasis put on delicious, well-made food in Italy is quite remarkable. If you have been lucky enough to meet our Italian guide, Giovanni, you know how much he loves food. Here in the U.S., we seem to fit meals into our already packed schedules.
In Italy, they do the opposite. Everything is scheduled around meals. But once you’ve had a taste of Italian cuisine, no matter the region, you understand why. Food should be treasured, appreciated, and paired with thoughtful conversation.
In addition to food, another important Italian staple that is taken very seriously there is espresso. I stopped into a caffe as often as I could throughout my trip, not only to grab a quick shot of caffeine but to take in the caffe shop culture. People of all walks of life – neighbors, strangers, young, old – they all would stop in for a quick break and chat about their day. Though it may seem a bit of an oxymoron as you are there to drink espresso which will, in turn, wake you up, it is a perfect place to relax from your day.
Since coming home, I’ve made a point to make some time in my day (though it certainly doesn’t happen every day) to stop by my local coffee shop, chat with the barista and other locals, and take a few sips of my drink to unwind, even if it is for just a few minutes.
Driving stick shift
When I tell people that I was driving alone around Italy for a week during pre-tour for this trip, most will give me a horrified look and ask how I survived Italy’s infamous drivers. Luckily, I’ve grown up driving in and around the bustling city of Chicago and felt quite at home with the fast and furious driving styles of the Italians.
I would just let them pass me whenever there was an open stretch of road, and to be honest, they seemed so much more aware of what was going on as I did not encounter one person who was trying to text and drive (which is way more than I can say for anyone driving in the U.S.!)
No, my biggest worry was that less than two weeks prior to this trip, I learned to drive stick shift for the very first time in my entire life. Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, it is quite common to not have learned how to drive a manual car. There are definitely people who know how to drive stick … but the biggest problem is that there are no manual cars to be driven anymore! Even rental car companies do not carry manual cars here.
I lucked out though and found that an old friend from high school still lived in the area, knew how to drive stick, AND had a manual transmission car. I also lucked out that he is one of the most patient and best teachers out there. Thank you so much, Chris! I am still in your debt.
I certainly went through some trials and tribulations throughout my pre-tour journey – having to figure out Italian road signs, navigate impossibly small “streets” that don’t look big enough to be alleyways, stalling at stop signs on uphill streets, and turning down what you thought was a road but turns out it was a very long private driveway.
But I am proud to say that only the first day ended in tears (and they were mostly of relief that I had survived than frustration).
Looking back now, I am grateful to have had that experience as it not only taught me to drive stick shift which is a valuable skill, but it also pushed me way out of my comfort zone.
Slow Down, Piano, Piano
Italians take life at their own pace. They take naps. They take a few hours for lunch and visiting friends. Heck, they’ll even close up shop on a slow business day when they deem it more productive to drink wine than wait around for a potential customer.
Americans have a high rate of “burning out”. We are proud to burn the candle at both ends, work 60+ hours a week, and always look exhausted. We think it proves that we are accomplished and successful. But there is something to be said about the Italian point of view.
We need to learn to take a moment to better enjoy the simple pleasures in life … and not feel an ounce of guilt for it!