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LIVING IN ITALY

‘Five ways a decade of living in Italy has changed me’

From transformed eating and drinking habits to the achievement of long-held ambitions, writer Richard Hough in Verona reflects on what ten years of living in Italy has done for him.

Much has changed since I moved to Verona almost exactly ten years ago. At the time, Silvio Berlusconi (remember him?) was clinging on to office while back in the UK waves of summer rioting had swept the country. 

After ten years of plying my trade in Edinburgh, we spent the summer of 2011 preparing for our new life in Verona. 

Between Brexit, Covid and the rise and fall of Donald J. Trump, the world has certainly moved on since then. But that time spent in Italy has also had an impact on me.

Coffee, not tea

Before moving to Italy Camellia sinensis (or tea as it’s more commonly known) was my hot beverage of choice. I’d guzzle 5/6 cups of the stuff a day, with little regard for quality, preparation, or delivery.

Only occasionally would I diverge and prepare myself a brimming mug of sweet, milky instant coffee, a shameful concoction that makes me feel slightly queasy now just thinking about it.

That situation has now completely reversed. Here in Verona, I drink about three or four cups of coffee a day, and rarely touch tea. 

During our first couple of years in Italy, we persevered with tea, but something just wasn’t right. At first, I thought it was the local water (which has a particularly high limescale content), so we switched to boiling mineral water. That didn’t seem to improve things. We experimented with a variety of different brands of tea bags, but the result was always a cup of disappointment. We even splashed out on luxury tea leaves from a boutique tea house, but it was no use. Within a few years of arriving in Verona, we simply gave up on tea and made the inevitable switch to coffee. 

READ ALSO: How has the coronavirus crisis changed Italy’s coffee culture?

A moka for breakfast, a rich luxurious cappuccino mid-morning and then a short, strong caffè liscio [straight coffee] after lunch. Maybe another hit later in the afternoon, but never in the evening. 

Italians tend only to drink tea when they’re not feeling well, and that’s become our practice too – the occasional comforting winter drink to lift the spirits and remind of home, but otherwise I’m a reluctant convert to Italy’s proud coffee culture.

How did you ever get by without a mid-morning visit to the coffee bar? Photo: Andreas SOLARO/AFP

I eat like an Italian (and find my old habits revolting)

You could fill a book with Italian eating habits, conventions and customs. Indeed, there are blogs and twitter feeds devoted to the subject. At first, many of these rules and practices seem fussy and smack even of a certain snobbish intolerance. Afterall, what could possibly be wrong with throwing a slice of pineapple on a pizza or adding a splash of cream to carbonara

On closer inspection, however, and having observed them at close quarters for nearly ten years now, there is an undeniable logic to Italian eating habits. For a start, Italians eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with admirable punctuality (one of the few things they do with such precision). 

Breakfast is generally sweet – a brioche or biscuits. More used to a savoury start to the day, I found the typical continental-style breakfast a tad indulgent, but have long since given up on finding a fry-up in Verona. With some reluctance, I have now embraced coffee and brioche as the only way to start the day in Italy.

READ ALSO:

Lunch is normally where I’ll take my pasta hit. These dishes tend to vary according to the season. A hearty pasta e fagioli in the winter, maybe a risotto agli asparagi in the spring and a simple salad in the summer.

Dinner is always later than we are used to, and we still occasionally find ourselves waiting patiently outside our local pizzeria in the early evening only to realise that the ovens never fire up before eight. Whenever we go back to the UK, the earlier teatime always takes a little readjusting to! 

One guaranteed side-effect of life in Italy is that you’ll become far more exacting about what qualifies as ‘good’ pizza. Photo: Nik Ownes/Unsplash

Indeed, compared to the lifestyle in which you can eat (and drink) anything, anytime, anywhere, Italians are far more prudent. They know more about their digestive systems and are prepared to share more than I ever thought was polite to mention! For this reason, they rarely eat pasta in the evening, preferring something low carb, like fish, meat or simply vegetables.

The production of a bowl of fresh fruit is a well-worn ritual at dinner tables across the country, so peeled fruit is another one of the numerous adjustments I’ve made to my eating habits over the last ten years. 

Ten years ago, I’d eat pasta as a side dish, maybe alongside a baked potato or even a quiche! Washed down with a cup of tea. And a Mars Bar. Looking back, I find such behaviour repulsive. I think that probably means, in my eating habits at least, I’ve been Italianized!

I know the difference between the second and third conditional

Italians, as anyone who has ever taught English or taken an Italian lesson over here will tell you, are sticklers for punctuation. The education system over here places a much greater emphasis on grammar than on the practical application of the language. Partly as a consequence of this approach, Italians are often regarded amongst the worst at speaking English in Europe.

To be fair, as a struggling linguist myself, I was also pretty hopeless when I arrived in Italy ten years ago. With no teaching experience, I was thrown in at the deep end and now shudder at the thought of some of my early English lessons. 

READ ALSO: ‘Nanna’s gone for a quickie’: Readers reveal their funniest Italian language gaffes

As a student, I didn’t fare much better and I struggled for months, even years, with the basics of Italian grammar. Now, at the risk of blowing my own trumpet, I’m regularly complemented on the fluency of my Italian (though, on reflection, this generally only happens after I’ve had a couple of drinks), and I can now rattle off the key features of the third conditional without giving it a second thought. 

While I wouldn’t say that I’m a stickler for punctuation, these past ten years have given me a deeper understanding of the structures behind the languages that we speak, a real empathy with anyone struggling to learn a new language, and a fierce determination to continue to improve. For me the struggle continues!

I’m now a (self) published author

Well, you couldn’t come to a city like Verona and not be inspired. Shakespeare, Catullus, Dante and Goethe, giants of the literary world, have all been inspired by the ancient city. More recently Tim Parks has emerged as one of the most eloquent voices reflecting on the contemporary Italian experience. 

Something about the climate, the architecture, the lifestyle and, of course, the sun-drenched piazzas just inspires creativity.

READ ALSO: Shakespeare and Italy: A literary love affair

People at the statue of Dante in Verona’s Piazza dei Signori. Photo: AFP

After years of pontificating, last year I published my first book, Notes from Verona, a short collection of diary entries from inside the locked-down city. Earlier this year I followed that up with my second book, Rita’s War, an account of the life of a young Jewish partisan who was killed in the hills above the city.

With another couple of works in progress, ten years into my Italian adventure, I’m finally getting around to delivering on my long-held literary ambitions.

I’ve developed an affection for Italian/Latin summer pop

This last one is a bit of a guilty pleasure. As a middle-aged father of two, I shouldn’t really be into Italian pop/rap music, but in recent years I’ve really succumbed to the insistent beat and playful lyrics of the Italian summer hit. 

When I first came to Italy, I tended to look down at contemporary Italian music, dismissing it as cheesy, superficial and trite. Now, inspired by my kids, I lap it up, enjoying Italian pop music for what it is, the essential soundtrack of a carefree Italian summer. 

Also great for picking up a few contemporary Italian phrases, these are the songs that boom out from campsites, beach bars, sagras and car radios. Here are a few of my favourites from the past couple of years to get you started:

Benji & Fede – Dove e quando (2019)

Baby K – Da zero a cento (2018)

Baby K – Roma – Bangkok ft. Giusy Ferreri (2015)

J-AX & Fedez – Italiana (2018)

Mahmood – Soldi (2019)

Francesco Gabbani – Occidentali’s Karma (2017)

Richard Hough has lived in Verona since September 2011 and writes about the region’s history, football, wine and culture. His new book, Rita’s War, a true story of persecution, resistance and heroism from wartime Italy, is available here. He is currently writing his next book about wartime Verona.

Member comments

  1. As also a long-time writer, I agree with many of the author’s observations. Changes in our eating and drinking habits have been significant, as has been the exposure to contemporary Italian culture (not just the historical culture, studied during schooling).

    However, the most profound shift has occurred with my work — both literary and artistic. Growing up and working in the U.S. inculcates a notion of rules governing everything. Behavior, language, customs, job performance, peers, etc. Not that there aren’t rules and procedures in Italy; indeed, there are plenty. But so many elements of daily life in the U.S. are “transactional,” that is, about the exchange of money for goods and services. It dominates everything. (Of course, we learned mercantile culture from the best –the British and the Dutch!)

    By contrast, in Italy, much of daily life occurs around human relationships — relationships with neighbors, friends, relatives, colleagues, even strangers. Many Americans look at this and see something suspicious — nepotism, favoritism, even possible collusion. We see it as being mutually supportive and caring.

    I cannot, in this short space, list all the ways Italian people have helped us. And that we have tried to return the many kindnesses. One small example: I would never have imagined that I would be published by an Italian publisher that has generously assumed all costs of translation, printing, and marketing for my new book. All because I had previously befriended an acquaintance of the company’s owner. This is just one of many unexpected and marvelous experiences living here.

  2. That is so lovely to hear Mark!

    The transactional nature of North America (there are exceptions, of course), is becoming truly unbearable.

    Richard, thank you for the article!

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CRIME

What happens when a foreign national gets arrested in Italy?

It’s a situation nobody ever wants to be in, but what if you’re arrested in Italy? Here's an overview of your rights and what you should do if this happens to you.

What happens when a foreign national gets arrested in Italy?

Most people come to Italy to enjoy the weather, food, and relaxed lifestyle. Very few come to break the law, but there’s always a chance you could find yourself in trouble with the Italian police whether through misunderstanding or misdemeanour. 

Pray it never happens but if you are arrested while in Italy, what are your rights? What happens next, and who can help you?

READ ALSO: Who to call and what to say in an emergency in Italy

Whether it’s a road traffic violation, a minor offence or a more serious charge, here’s what you need to know about Italian legal processes upon arrest. 

The Italian system

Italian legal procedures may slightly differ from those in your home country, but just like in most Western countries, the Italian judiciary is independent from the government and all foreign nationals have the same rights (and face the same laws) as citizens.

Rights upon arrest

Upon your arrest, you will be orally informed of your rights, which, in short, are the following: 

You have the right to appoint a lawyer of your choice. If for any reason you cannot find a lawyer, the police will ask the local bar association to produce a state-appointed lawyer (difensore di ufficio). In Italy it is mandatory to have a lawyer when facing criminal charges. 

You also have the right to inform your family and your consulate of your arrest.

Keep in mind that, in case you’re caught and arrested in the act of committing a crime (un reato) or immediately after committing a crime, you do not have the right to know the allegations held against you until the udienza di convalida, a judicial hearing for the validation of your arrest (this must take place within four days of the arrest).

In all other circumstances, you will be served an arrest warrant (mandato), which must include an overview of the allegations.

Legal representation

You are entitled to representation by a lawyer (avvocato) during all stages of the criminal proceedings against you.

You can find contact details for Italian lawyers through the Albo Nazionale Avvocati (National Lawyers Register). Alternatively, you may also reach out to your consulate and ask to be given the contact information of lawyers suited to your case.

As previously mentioned, if you can’t find a lawyer, a defense counsel will automatically be appointed by the police or by the court from a list of lawyers provided by the local bar association.

READ ALSO: Guardia di Finanza to Carabinieri – who does what in the Italian police force? 

Please note that, if you are not under arrest but merely under investigation, you cannot be interviewed by the police in the absence of your lawyer. Any evidence gathered during an unlawful interview will be stricken as inadmissible at trial.

Conversely, if you are under arrest, the interview can only be conducted by a judge or a prosecutor. In such a case, your lawyer must be informed of the interview but their attendance is not mandatory.

Trial of two US teenagers in Rome

Lawyer Massimo Ferrandino takes the floor during a high-profile criminal proceeding in Rome on July 22nd 2020. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / POOL / AFP.

Legal aid

As of January 2021, if you are earning less than €11,746.68 (approximately £9960 or $12,511) per year, you are entitled to apply for legal aid.

If your application is successful, your lawyer of choice will be paid in full by the state at the end of your proceedings.

In order to apply for legal aid, non-EU citizens need to produce an official statement validated by their consulate and indicating their personal yearly income.

Translators

If you do not have a good command of Italian, you should be provided with an interpreter for any stage of the proceedings where your presence is required. The service will be free of charge.

While you are entitled to a translator, you don’t have the right to ask that any evidence against you be translated into your mother tongue. 

Interrogation

Whether you’re being questioned by the police, a prosecutor or a judge, you should know that anything you say can be used against you during your trial. 

As a result, it is advisable that you consult your lawyer prior to answering any question.

Pre-trial detention & bail

Your pre-trial detention or other conditions imposed on your freedom are decided by the judge in camera di consiglio, ie. not in an open court.

The length of your pre-trial detention period depends on the nature of your alleged offence.

For instance, for minor offences, you cannot be detained for more than six months prior to your trial. Keep in mind that, by Italian law, if your trial at the first instance doesn’t end within 18 months of your detention, you must be released.

Local police officers standing outside Milan’s San Vittore prison. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP.

Defendants who are granted bail (libertà provvisoria) are free to go back to their home country unless the judge has imposed conditions that would make it impossible to do so (for instance, the confiscation of one’s passport).

Any breach of the relevant bail conditions generally results in the application of harsher measures, such as restraining orders (ordinanze restrittive), house arrest (arresti domiciliari) or custody.

Note that the judge’s decisions regarding a defendant’s freedom prior to the start of their trial can be challenged by applying for a judicial review at the Tribunale della Libertà (Freedom Tribunal).

Rights while in custody

All prisoners have a number of rights, including the right to security, healthcare and sustenance. Detainees also have a right to unlimited mail correspondence, six one-hour-long visits per month (no more than three visitors are allowed at a single time) and one 10-minute phone call per week.

Foreign nationals can request to receive the Charter of Rights (Carta dei diritti e dei doveri dei detenuti e degli internati) in their own language. The English-language version is available here.

All detainees who believe that their rights may have been violated can reach out to their regional ombudsman and request intervention.

Bear in mind that ombudsmen have the authority to set up meetings with detainees and visit penitentiary centres without previous authorisation.

Please note that The Local cannot advise on specific cases. If you find yourself under arrest in Italy, we suggest you contact your country’s consulate for advice.

For further information, please consult Fair Trials’ online resource hub and Prison Insider’s website. Other useful links are available below:

National Bar Council

Ministry of Justice

National Guarantor for the Rights of People Deprived of Liberty

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