A Gap Year in Italy
As an eighteen year old, I decided to take the opportunity during my gap year before starting university to spend time in Italy as an au-pair for seven months. Italy had long held an allure, based on what I had seen on travel programmes on TV, the sound of the language (not that I’d ever had a single Italian lesson, mind), not to mention that pizza, pasta and ice cream were amongst my very favourite foods.
It was an incredible experience to spend seven months in il bel paese and immerse myself into the lifestyle. It was certainly the experience that really opened my eyes to ways of living a more chic existence through incorporating a number of small yet significant changes into my daily life.
An Unusual Home
The family I stayed with didn’t have a typical set up from an au-pairing perspective; they owned a hotel on a promontory almost completely surrounded by the sea and took residence on the top floor. The family comprised three generations- the seven-year-old boy I had to look after and teach English, his parents and the paternal grandmother, great aunt and uncle. Although an au-pair typically lives with her host family, I was allocated a room in a small annexe on the hotel site. Alas, it was on the ground floor so was missing the incredible sea views that the family enjoyed, but I could hardly complain as the sea was virtually on my doorstep. The hotel was located on the edge of a large, historic town full of beautiful old buildings, quaint cobbled streets, a cathedral and a harbour- see the photo above. Yes, I felt sure that I’d chosen a great placement the day that I arrived!
Gregarious, Welcoming Italians
It’s true that I’m a little introverted and tend to avoid large group situations and most very noisy places, but had to overcome these natural tendencies as I found the Italians in general to be very sociable people who love large gatherings with family or friends. Perhaps because of the groups often being large and needing to be heard, people often spoke quite loudly and gesticulated with their hands a lot. I found the gesticulating with hands to emphasis points quite endearing and found myself doing it too, after a while! Despite my natural preferences I was pretty grateful that the Italians are a sociable and welcoming bunch on the whole because it made it easier for me to pick up the language, make friends and build up a social life, without which my time there would have been pretty lonely.
Fare la Passeggiata– more than just a stroll
The same day that I arrived, after unpacking my belongings, I was invited to join the family to ‘fare la passeggiata‘ – this transpired to be a late afternoon/ early evening walk around the neighbourhood. It didn’t take long before I realised that everybody else seemed to be out doing the very same thing- this daily walk was a chance to socialise (as various friends and often extended family members would be encountered during the stroll) and everyone made an effort to present their best self. Even though the majority of people had probably been at work all day and they would just be heading back to their own homes for dinner after the passeggiata rather than to a restaurant, they all looked very smart, with women wearing either dresses, skirts or a nice blouse with trousers or jeans. Men invariably wore shirts or polo shirts with trousers or smart jeans, no shorts. A lot of women wore a noticeable amount of jewellery- not in an excessively flashy way, but enough to be noticed. The shoes that people wore were smart, mostly leather rather than trainers. Even though it was the end of the day everyone’s hair looked immaculate so they had probably re-done it specially before leaving for their walk.
The start of my education on La Bella Figura
I can’t deny that this experience of ‘fare la passeggiata’ was quite an eye-opener for me, who was still wearing a printed sundress more for daywear than evening wear (and not the sort of dress I spotted the Italian ladies wearing). I felt distinctly underdressed and wished I had made more of an effort with my hair (more than a little windswept from not having been brushed since that morning) and worn a bit of jewellery. Still, at least I knew for next time!
This evening passeggiata was my introduction to the Italian concept of creating ‘la bella figura‘, loosely translated as ‘looking one’s best’ or making a positive first impression and extends to putting one’s best face forward in any situation. Kristi Belle explains this concept and much more about living an Italian lifestyle in her wonderful book. I would highly recommend a read of it if it interests you.
There will be more posts about my experience of life in Italy and what I learned about how Italian women create la bella figura. Please add your email to the box on the right to follow my blog and be notified of future posts —>