Ever since I saw Audrey Hepburn’s The Roman Holiday, I had dreamt of going to Italy. I had visualised myself wearing a polka-dotted sundress, a straw hat and ruby red lipstick, cruising along the Amalfi Coast on a sparkling pastel yellow Vespa, driving to a quaint seaside restaurant for dinner and devouring a plate of fettuccine, with a glass of prosecco wine.
It was in March 2019 that my vision was finally realised when a dear Italian friend from university invited me to spend a week with her!
I wanted to strike a balance between ticking tourist spots off my bucket list, as well as delving into a more authentic experience and embracing multiple aspects of life in Italia.
We spent the first four days in Rome, and the next four in Salerno, a coastal town in Southern Italy, which was home for my friend. From Salerno, we took day trips to Naples, Amalfi, Positano and the less touristy Santa Maria.
On reaching there, I realised that while I did learn many new things in Italy, the similarities with India made me feel so much more at home than in a ‘foreign’ country.
From food, to family life, streets to patterns of communication as well as the diversity of each region, Italy felt like a mini-European version of India. Here are four major parallels that were unmissable.
It is a common misconception that Italian cuisine is limited to pizza and pasta and that there is only one way of cooking both. Each region in Italy has its own specific kind and variation of these dishes, as well as several lesser known options.
Like many tourists, I too landed in Rome expecting to be treated by a large margherita pizza, but I was informed by my friend that the pizza was a southern, and more specifically Neapolitan, speciality.
In Rome, instead we had a traditional Roman ‘pizzetta’, a smaller, rectangular shaped base, with tomato sauce and cheese on it. We ate this not sitting down in a restaurant, but on the go, biting into the bread, tearing it with our hands. By the end of it, the corners of my face and fingers were smeared with fresh tomato sauce.
This new discovery made me think of home, not only in terms of breaking the stereotype of Indian food being limited to the generic term ‘curry’, but also with regard to the regional diversity of cuisine as well as methods of eating, especially getting one’s hands dirty.
Moreover, in Italy, just as in India, food unites communities, people, friends and even strangers. I was lucky enough to eat an authentic, home-cooked Italian meal comprising an aubergine bake, a cheese platter, seasoned olives, freshly baked bread, with a glass of local red wine, accompanied by cannoli and limoncello for dessert.
Like Indians, Italians too value the concept of a large family, staying true to their roots and respecting the elders in the home. Joint families and large family meals are commonplace. These gatherings are always noisy, bustling with food and conversation.
While the two languages maybe completely different, the extensive use of hand gestures, facial expressions and voice contortions and modulations make the conservation rhythmic and easier to articulate across both cultures.
Street-side vegetable vendors
I remember having an entire conversation with an Italian gentleman who worked at a museum I was visiting.
He barely knew any English, but despite the barrier we were able to communicate through gestures, so much so that he even told me that he had visited St. Andrews, the town my university is situated in, on a tour he took some years earlier. It was not just our styles of communication that were similar, but also our beliefs and values.
The common adherence to superstitions came as another surprise when I noticed the practice of hanging chillies and lemons on vehicles and doorways. This is meant to ward off evil and bring good luck in both cultures.
Other common superstitions include not opening an umbrella inside the house, black cats crossing your path as a bad omen, and broken mirrors being a sign of misfortune. These are central to the social fabric in both countries and followed quite seriously by those who are more conservative.
If photographs of streets in Naples and Delhi are arranged side by side, it would be difficult even for a local to differentiate between the cities! While walking through the narrow Neapolitan lanes, I was transported back home immediately.
I began reminiscing about my childhood walks through the lanes of old Delhi, specifically the area around my grandmother’s home in Daryaganj, one of the few urban areas that is still relatively untouched by the hand of modern architecture.
Napoli or Dilli?! One can’t really tell from the photos. The same narrow alleyways greeted me: colourful flats in large clusters stacked one over another, each window and veranda adorned with drying clothes in a multitude of hues, a variety of big and small vehicles parked in complete chaos.
Even the street vendors selling bread, cookies, fruits, and the way homemakers carry out transactions, letting down baskets on ropes from their windows – every minute nuance of city life is mirrored.
The only difference is the language, but the noise and chatter remains just the same, with screaming children, cars and bikes whizzing through the tightest of spaces and street vendors calling out to customers.
Both the nations share their dark sides as well, including stark economic disparities. While every street corner of the capital Rome has its typical display of grandeur, with exquisite marble statues, churches, expensive restaurants, wide boulevards, and palaces, many parts of the south such as Naples are visibly affected by extreme poverty, and harsh living conditions.
It is much like the comparison between the large bungalows of central Delhi and the urban villages and slums all around the metropolis.
Moreover, patriarchy as well as over-population and corruption are major issues in Italy as well. If these core issues are overcome, the positives will surely triumph.
After all, these are both lands of mighty empires and civilisations that were once prosperous, powerful and the envy of the entire world.
This article was first published in eShe’s July 2019 issue