Came home at 9 p.m. after 24 hours of planes, airports and crazy airconditioning that caused my cold. After a short visit of the house, I go to the kitchen, ask my host mom where the glasses and plates are, and start setting the table. She looks at me with a confused expression, not knowing what I was doing. That was the first time I faced the issue of diet and traditions differences.
It takes time to discover the truth about a country's food habits, to uncover clichés or stereotypes, and I’m starting to feel well prepared on the topic just now, after six months.
As my culture taught me, the purpose of eating is not just biological, is not just feeding your body, it’s a social event. In Italy, eating is the most used excuse to socialize, to keep families connected and to take a break off working.
Eating has a specific schedule and divides the phases of our daily routine. Lunch is an important moment, a sacral event for grandmas, and probably my favorite meal of the day, when everybody gets together and rests from 1 to about 3/4 p.m., before starting working again.
Opening the door after a long morning at school, with the heavy backpack on my shoulders, smelling the sauce and looking at the steaming water from the pasta’s pan, is probably the best way to feel at home. Kids set the table with dishes, glasses and bread, while the mom is cooking and loudly asking how was school. The TV is usually on, while awful and concerning news about wars and politics are in contrast with the joyful and carefree atmosphere.
After this pause, the business schedule starts again until about 8 p.m., when everybody comes back home to have dinner and enjoy the end of the day.
I’ve noticed that here in the US lunch is not as much emphasized. It’s more like a snack, since the business hours aren’t broken in two phases, and dinner, the most important meal, is done way earlier than Italians are used to.
I’ve been surprised by many little differences that I’ve never even wondered about… like going to the same place to get both breakfast and lunch and not finding any open restaurant at 10 p.m. Here there’s not a specific phase to eat sweets, or noodles, there aren’t many rules on what to eat and when to eat it.
Eating habits reveal a lot about the way a country considers time. While in Italy I was used to organizing big dinners at the restaurant not before 8 p.m. with ten or more friends. Here it is more common going to diners and ordering pancakes or a piece of pie at 8 p.m., without being judged for having it that late.
It’s been new for me, but I loved the fact that the meals’ schedule is never boring, never the same, and trying has been so much fun and interesting.
In US time isn’t an unlimited resource. The concept of fast-food exists because the main original goal of it was being “fast.”
Take-away food is meant to fit with full schedules and busy people. Sandwiches and portable food are way more available and diffused here, which I personally really enjoy during stressful periods. What about my country?
Well, it’s not a new fact that Italians are always late, and like they are relaxed on their schedule, they are when it concerns meals. The purpose of the meal is the opposite of being fast: the purpose is chatting and dedicating time to yourself. Cooking is a way of showing affection to your loved ones.
Which of the two ways do I prefer? I honestly don’t know. The way and the diet you grew up with creates what you consider “good” or “bad.” We are victims of a system that fills our heads with clichés and myths about countries’ customs that can be uncovered just experiencing them by yourself. Italians eating pepperoni pizza everyday is one of the fake ones. And the same concept is applied for Europe, about how wrongly American lifestyle is judged. In fact, I’ve found many healthy and vegan alternatives, especially in this area, that I wouldn’t be able to find back in my hometown. Plus, an extreme importance is given to sports, which Italian schools are lacking.
America is a huge country that embraces many varieties of cultures, and with them, a crazy amount of diets and food traditions. Big chains born here export all over the world and make the society victim of addicting, tasty and fast meals. The reason why they are less spread in Italy is because the food traditions are way older and rooted in the eating habits. The small dimensions of the country helped the local production and consumption, while in US the multinational corporations killed the local organizations, making harder and more expensive healthier foods.
I think no diet is better or worse than another one, but the quality of products, the balanced quantities and the way they are cooked. Italian meals sold as fast-food aren’t healthy most of the times; on the other hand, hamburgers made with the right ingredients can be a rich and healthy dish.
This experience abroad has made me face new eating alternatives and become more mature and informed about it. Many myths have been destroyed. I’ve discovered things and enriched my knowledge. I’ve become more aware of what eating means, how it’s connected to a country’s history and how to appreciate it in any of its forms.
• Giulia Ciarlantini is an exchange student at Mount Shasta High School from Italy. She wrote the piece above as part of her senior project.