“Piano, piano” is a common and quintessentially Italian phrase. It can be directly translated to “floor by floor” or “slowly, slowly,” but I believe the phrase translates more accurately to “little by little.” In a word, it means patience. To live in Italy without patience is to attempt to coexist alongside the culture, instead of immersed in it; you may last a few weeks or months, but you won’t last long term (at least not happily). You cannot flout the way of life here and search for a more digestible version of the country. The absence of patience will turn your love for Italy into bouts of resentment and frustration. Instead, if you wish to truly flourish here, you must learn to harness patience as a virtue. Developing this skill will take time, but you’ll get there, piano, piano.
After living in Italy for more than four years, I’ve learned, explored and grown in varying ways. A few of these changes are easily recognizable: I no longer wear athleisure outside the house unless I’m doing something active, a cardinal Italian sin and surefire way to stick out as an American. My Italian has certainly improved, thanks to many hours of Italian lessons. I am exponentially more patient than the young woman who stepped off the plane in Rome in 2017.
Although, I’m proud of all three achievements, I would say that learning how to be a more patient person has had the most profound impact on my life and perspective. As an American, I was used to instant gratification, efficiency and speed. These three words would seldom be used to describe living in Italy. The inefficiencies of the Italian bureaucratic system are well-known. You can instantly send a chill down someone’s spine by simply uttering the word Questura. Expat Facebook groups and message boards are filled with horror stories of dealing with Italian bureaucracy. In the end, after a dizzying dance full of conflicting information, twists and turns, each person ultimately finds their resolution albeit taking the long-way around.
As someone who prides themselves on being efficient and productive, I assumed that I would be able to easily impress my efficiency on Italy and the country would respond in kind. Shockingly, having a strong will is not enough to force a country to work within your standard of speed and organization. Instead, you are forced to rewire your way of thinking —this can be aided by a large glass of wine overlooking a piazza— and learn to walk in step with Italy’s rhythm. This is having patience.
Instances Where Patience Is An Italian Virtue:
- Waiting at PosteItaliane to send a package. My all-time record is a two-hour wait to send my mom a birthday card (which cost me 14 Euros and arrived two months later).
- Entering hour four of a Sunday lunch where the old men are falling asleep on the couch, but there is no end in sight.
- Sitting in Firenze Santa Maria Novella Station where the train back to Rome is four-hours delayed, but you’re unable to change your low fare ticket to one of the other six trains that are running on time.
- Opening a new bank account and being told your debit card will arrive in the mail next week and then it doesn’t show up for three months. It was shipped from Milan.
- Sitting at the bus stop for over thirty minutes before giving up and walking three miles home.
- Every single appointment running no less than fifteen minutes behind schedule.
Before living in Italy, any of these events would have propelled me into an emotional tailspin, cursing the air and fuming at the seemingly huge inconvenience they caused. Now, I shrug it off, search for any potential elements that are within my control to change, and if none exist, I simply accept my fate. So, how did I learn patience? I consider it to be a journey similar to the five stages of grief:
- Denial: The country couldn’t possibly require that much patience?
- Anger: How can something be so inefficient!
- Bargaining: Maybe Italy will change..?
- Depression: Italy is most definitely not changing, how can I live like this?
- Acceptance: This is the way things are here!
Cultivating patience within yourself is simultaneously freeing and empowering. You’re free from the pointless frustration caused by problems outside of your control, while maintaining a firm grip on the emotional rollercoaster that would have previously ensued. Don’t expect that you will be immune to the occasional irritation, but once you arrive at acceptance you’ll find that you’ll be the one saying “piano, piano” to freshly minted Italian residents ripe with frustrations.
I’m not going to lie and say that I was thrilled that it took me four trips to the Municipio, a call to a Comune in Abruzzo, and an email to the Italian Consulate in America to change my residency. I still don’t fully understand how or why certain things in Italy work the way they do, but that’s part of the unofficial agreement I made when I decided to move here. I’ve learned to accept that things will get accomplished, but on their terms and schedule, not mine. That was the deal we struck —Italy would provide me with beauty, culture, love, language, food, wine (and more), and I in turn would give it grace where I would have previously reacted with aggravation— I consider it a fair trade. While patience isn’t exclusively an Italian virtue, it is certainly a required skill that one must acquire to not only survive, but to appreciate Italy, fully. Just another step on the path to the Italian way of life. Whether you’re thinking of making the move or just visiting, add “patience” to your packing list and piano, piano, you’ll experience the country from a new, lighter perspective.