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4 Untranslatable Italian Concepts

Summer bike rides, aperitivi and Sunday lunches at la nonna's place: here's a list of "untranslatable" Italian concepts that you won't be able to find anywhere else in the world!

Illustrations by Eleonora Antonioni

Living abroad is one of the best ways to open up your mind to new cultures, learn about new customs and become a more resilient and curious citizen of the world. Yes, that all sounds wonderful. But what happens when an Italian like me, wanderlusting around the world, realizes that there are some typical Italian situations that cannot be replicated abroad and starts desperately craving for them?

Here’s a list of the Italian concepts that I miss the most.


Caffè al banco

Translation: Coffee at the bar

The average Italian has breakfast and then goes to work. But wait, one step is missing: before entering the workplace, our Italian friend makes a "pit-stop" at his/her favorite bar, orders a caffè (we don’t actually call it an espresso), downs it while standing at the bar counter, drops the coins on the little dish to pay before saying goodbye and leaving. The entire operation lasts around 32 seconds — although this also depends on your ability to drink piping hot liquids without inflicting serious injury.


Pranzo della domenica e sonnellino

Translation: Sunday lunch and a nap

Since I was a baby — with very rare exceptions — I’ve spent Sunday lunch time at my nonna’s place (my grandmother’s), with the whole family assembled. The table, set in a traditional opulent way (spoiler: I also couldn’t find decent tablecloths abroad!), hosted a sumptuous lunch composed of a primo (first course: gnocchi or lasagne), secondo (second course), contorno (side dish), pasticcini (pastries) and caffè (coffee). The average nonna makes you feel obliged to eat everything, with second servings, so you can easily understand why you would need to take a power nap, or sonnellino, after lunch.


Aperitivo e pasticcini

Translation: Aperitif and pastries

"You know what? I’d like to fare aperitivo right now!"

I cannot count the number of times I’ve uttered this sentence. What do I mean? That’s very simple: a spritz or a glass of white wine, some cicchetti (you don’t even need to order them because they are already on the counter), and a chat with your friends. Most of the time, the aperitivo becomes a sort of dinner: abroad, they often try to imitate this aperitivo all’italiana, but in my opinion they have not succeeded. Something very important is missing: that Italian air of carelessness that allows you to take your time drinking a glass of wine with your friends without worrying about the plans for the rest of the evening.

And what about the pasticcini (pastries)? This is a painful topic for me: I’m not complaining about the pastries on offer in Germany or France, not at all. However, what other countries don’t understand is that the pastry shops MUST be open on Sunday mornings! How else am I supposed to bring a trayful of them to my nonna’s for the Sunday lunch?!?


Gelato in bicicletta

Translation: Cycling to get ice cream

Picture the scene: a summer evening, your trusty bike and a light jacket covering your shoulders. This is very common where I come from in Italy: after dinner, we literally cover every inch of our skin with anti-mosquito cream, switch on our bike light dynamos and we’re off! We always follow the same old route, riding our bikes slowly and lazily in a group with no regard for the line in the road — and the final destination is always the gelateria. We’ll enjoy un cono con due palline (a cone with two scoops) and a chat with friends among the mosquitos that devour you despite the cream. In the 80s, I remember we always stopped near the park to admire the fireflies.

In Germany, where I now live, the ice cream shops close in the evenings and the bikes are seen as purely objects for transportation. Consequently, you have to cycle in the dedicated lane, quickly and in a tidy single line… you don’t even have time to whistle!

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