The Unspoken Rules of Tuscany
Tuscany: most popularly identified by rolling green hills of vineyards and olive trees, interrupted only by small stone sanctuaries throughout, dating back to the times of Dante, Galileo and the Medici family. The central location not only includes rolling hills, but also varies from coastal cities to northern peaks. Tuscany spans from the Ligurian Sea on the west coast, and borders the Liguria, Emilia-Romagna, Marche, Umbria and Lazio regions.
The people of Tuscany, or the Toscani, hold themselves with pride and grace, with good reason due to the establishments that have reined throughout their history into modern times. Ancient culture, however, holds ancient rules. More often than not, the Toscani have cultural norms that are quite different than what other Western cultures stereotype as “Italian culture”. The unspoken rules of Tuscany can serve as a guide for outsiders, outlining what the Tuscan people wish you knew before burdening the locals.
Art is everything. From ancient statues and architecture, to modern art galleries and graffiti, all art is respected. Art is not just something pretty to look at, it’s a lifestyle that has driven Tuscan history since it began. Street art is especially common in Florence, where graffiti is not covered or painted over because of the artistic value it often serves. Famous street artists are often found among the twisting stone alleyways, such as Banksy.
Don’t think it’s trashy. It’s art.
Often times the painted picture of Italy in every persons’ head has some sort of clothesline hanging from above. There are no dryers. And if you have one, you probably are not from around here. While living in Tuscany, landlords and teachers alike push foreigners to adapt to a lifestyle focused on saving energy, and explained how rudimentary breakers installed in most buildings cannot handle this appliance. One of the biggest ways energy efficiency is achieved is by air-drying clothes. The smell is delightful, but fair warning: your towels will probably never feel soft again.
Toscani are also very fashion forward. Don’t even think about walking out the door wearing sweatpants, leggings, or running shorts without expecting locals to be bewildered by your attire. Personal appearance is held to a high standard, as it is a projected image of oneself. And not only is clothing a representation of oneself, but daily fashion also closely aligns with the seasons. It doesn’t matter if it’s 30 degrees Celsius in November, fall jackets are to be worn at all times.
If it isn’t made from Sangiovese or Vernaccia grapes, then why even drink it? Chianti is just one of the wines that originates from the vineyards of Tuscany and is made with a blend of at least 80 percent Sangiovese grapes. Chianti can be crafted into simply Chianti or Chianti Classico, which can only truly be identified by the seal of the Black Rooster. A wine can be considered even more respectable if labeled with a DOC or DOCG seal, which offers a government guarantee about the origins of the wine. DOCG offer this guarantee in combination with a quality taste test inspection by government-appointed testers. Other Tuscan wines include Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and a dessert wine called Vin Santo.
One thing about Italian drinking culture many do not understand is that the act of getting drunk is looked down upon. The people of Tuscany encourage indulgence of wine for meals and occasions with limitation, but never becoming more rowdy than one would in sobriety. Drunkenness is thought of as pure embarrassment.
The cappuccinos (or cappuccini in Italian) are whipped to perfection with the traditional ratio of espresso, milk, and foam. But ordering after 13:00? Forget about it. Coffee is consumed in the morning hours for reasons that have something to do with hot milk on an empty stomach, but more so that it is heavily ingrained into societal values. An espresso shot is also a very popular form of coffee for the morning hours, but it is simply called, “un caffe”. Espresso serves as an exception to this rule, as many people order one after dinner to help digestion.
Also, ordering a “latte” will end with receiving a glass of milk. It’s best just to keep it simple and satisfying with a world famous Italian cappuccino.
People of the Streets
Gypsies, performers, merchants, beggars, and even selfie-stick suppliers - the streets hold it all in the larger cities of Tuscany. Some are passive, and some are blatantly obtrusive to your personal space. Most, though, will do no harm. However, gypsies who wander the streets with faces painted white are known to pull tricks over the eyes of many foreigners. Some of these tricks involve pick-pocketing, scamming money by forging fake pregnancies and infants, and mockery during it all. They are eager to put their bodies as close to others as possible in order to snatch the gems of others, so be wary. Street performers, on the other hand, are sometimes the best musicians to put their fingers on an accordion. Or, sometimes the worst. If a merchant approaches in hopes to sell something, they usually will not leave unless completely ignored.
Bikes and Vespas are the main forms of transportation along the Tuscan countryside, and within the city especially. It is quite hard to tell who’s is who’s when there are hundreds of white and black Vespas lined side by side on the street. But, it seemed as though the locals never have a problem locating their energy efficient vehicle. Cars are less common, but are about the size of a children’s toy car made from metal instead of plastic. Pedestrians are warned to be heavily cautious around roads because unlike America, cars are typically more entitled to be on the road than people. If a pedestrian gets hit crossing the street, it is most likely their fault in Italy, not the person driving the vehicle. Segway scooters are another common form of transportation seen around large cities, but are only used for tour groups. Rent a Segway only if you want to appear as though “tourist” is your one and only identifying trait.
Pigeons and Piazze
A piazza is a large open square, usually in the center of a city if there is only one. However, larger cities like Florence and Sienna have multiple piazze throughout their boundaries which serve as spots for social gathering and dining. The squares are often lively during meal times and even serve as a place for markets and street performances. The one plague of these squares: pigeons. They are the local pests of Tuscany, and their future shows no sign of disappearance. Many people and tourists believe it is desirable to feed the pigeons, but this is the opposite. Locals view them as “flying rats”, according to one of my professors, and they wish them to begone. Feeding them keeps them around for eternity. Don’t be that person.
Dogs or Humans?
It’s one thing to have a pet, but in Tuscany, dogs are treated almost as equals — despite the above photo; think of this one more as a child throwing a fit. The attitude of dogs in Tuscany are similar to their owners, almost as if sticking their noses in the air to strut down the street alongside their masters. Locals bring their furry companions everywhere, and do not expect to leave them to wait outside. Dogs are not just a pet, but a family member who are along for the ride of life, even if they would rather sleep on the couch. Do not ask to pet them unless the situation seems fitting among a conversation.
The market is one of the institutions in Tuscany that fully runs on social and cultural behaviors and traditions. A weekday afternoon at the market is a crowded mass of people searching for the best produce and products of the day. There are several rules to the market that are vastly different from other Western cultures.
First and foremost, NEVER touch the produce with your own hands. The vendors are there for that. Locals do not want grimy hands all over their dinner ingredients. Also, bartering is only acceptable for goods that are not edible. Local farmers have set prices, but a purse can be talked down from 100 Euros to 60 if your savvy enough with your Italian persuasion, asking politely for “lo sconto”.
Another thing to be mindful of at Tuscan markets is the gruesomeness. Be aware, the food is more fresh than one could imagine, but Toscani do not hide where one’s food comes from. At every other corner in the midst of the market will be a dead animal half prepared for purchase. Hanging pig heads, skinned rabbits, whole chickens, and giant fish on display with only half a body are only some of the sights to be seen. However, in the grand scheme of things, America simply does not show the in-between stages from cow to packaging because meat is processed from different facilities other than a local farm.
Tourists are disrupting the social culture of the market in current times with the increasing popularity among the region. This is causing other vendors from outside the country to occupy more of the spaces in the market, selling less genuine merchandise that is disguised as traditional Italian products. One example of this is multicolored pasta noodles. Yet, the culture of the market is not dying among the locals, as majority of them live solely through the help of fresh produce and local products.
Tuscan culture is a creature of its own, engraved with norms that are somewhat bizarre to outsiders. Yet, this is the soul of Tuscany, and the reason for its popularity. Respect for other cultures is what makes travel magical, with a mutual foundation among foreigners and locals alike. Travel to understand and learn, instead of to impede.