This May, I was fortunate enough to live in Cortona, Italy with the UGA Terry College of Business program. Largely known for its depiction in Under The Tuscan Sun, Cortona was the perfect way to experience small town Italian culture. UGA’s Cortona campus is a renovated monastery-turned-dorm at the top of the scenic mountain town. It was crazy how quickly it began to feel like home, almost 5,000 miles away from Georgia.
Cortona is located in the farthest eastern corner of Tuscany atop a mountain. The streets and buildings are all made of stone with almost no greenery that is not in a pot, but this really adds to Cortona’s overall charm. The only flat street in town is Via Nazionale where all the shops and cafes are located. These are the cafes we would visit almost every day for a latte (only 1 euro!) and a pastry to work on our assignments. While the stone structures and streets add to the overall charm, the real charm of Cortona is its people. I honestly expected local people to not like us since we were American, but they were really patient and kind to us, as well as all tourists. UGA has had students coming to Cortona for the past 50 years, so they’re definitely used to us, but I think it helped that they knew we were genuinely there to learn about their culture. My favorite part of Cortona was its family owned, local artisan shops all around town. You could buy anything from handmade soap to custom designed clothing. While you might want to come prepared where your wallet is concerned ($$$) if you’re hoping to buy, it’s so much fun stopping in and meeting the owners and artists themselves!
Through this Terry College of Business study abroad program, we took an international business course and an Italian culture course. Our Italian culture course explored Italian art and literature, as well as the history behind it. By visiting local businesses and speaking with their owners, we learned fascinating information about the overall Italian business culture. I was most interested in two aspects: riposo and “marrying your employees.”
Riposo is basically the Italian “siesta” and it is still a very common practice in Italy. We had to wait until about 3pm to go to the cafe every day because they’d be closed from about 12:30 to 3 every single day. While I admit this definitely results in some profit loss and reduced productivity, it is genius from an employee job satisfaction standpoint. The mentality behind this practice is that employees aren’t living their entire waking life at work. This allows employees to feel as though going to work is an activity that occupies most of their day, but isn’t their whole life. They get to maybe nap, eat, or see family and friends during their break, which allows them to feel rejuvenated when they come back at 3 or 4pm until close around 7pm.
When I say “marrying your employees,” I mean that it is law in Italy that an employer cannot simply just fire an employee. An employer commits to employing someone for life, unless they do something insanely terrible or illegal. Even if they are a horrible employee, an employer is required by law to give them three warnings and then, if they do not correct the behavior, they can be let go. However, the fired employee has an option to appeal this, which can cost the employer thousands of dollars in legal fees, time and energy. While I say this, it is not necessarily a bad thing in the Italian culture. While lackadaisical employees can hinder productivity, often times it’s good for a business. This practice has encouraged the Italian people to see their job as a career and not so much so a stepping stone to the next best thing. For example, it was very common for 40 year old men to be a waiter at a restaurant and they took their job very seriously. Whereas at home in the US, a waiter is usually a bored college student trying to pay some bills and student loans. Waiters in Italy were always very concerned if you did not eat all of your food because they thought you didn’t enjoy the food. The success of the restaurant directly affects their chosen career, so they want to ensure customer’s satisfaction with their experience.
My favorite part of Italian culture is “aperitivo,” when everyone in town comes to the piazza around 6pm to sit, drink wine or walk around to talk to neighbors. It’s something both locals and tourists can participate in, which what I thought made this custom cool. This Huffpost article did a great job of explaining the historical significance behind it and the typical “aperitivo” food and drink. I didn’t know about Spritz before I went to Italy, but they are an Italian staple. I wasn’t a huge fan though, so I stayed with red wine most of the time! Italian’s eat very late, after aperitivo, so they usually eat around 9pm and later. The Italian culture believes eating is an activity for spending time with friends and family. In a traditional Italian dinner, there’s at least 3 courses and 5 courses is most common: antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno and dolce. I love Italian food, so it was great getting to try so many things each night. Some have asked me if we had to adjust to different portion sizes in Italy versus the “huge” American portions. Honestly, I ate way more food in Italy than I ever do at home in the US. While each portion may be small, a person gets full after 3 or more courses of carb-loaded food.
If you ever have the opportunity to not only go abroad, but live abroad, do it. I cannot stress enough how amazing it was to spend a month in this amazing little town. Immersing yourself in a culture so different from your own allows you to appreciate their way of life, but also your way of life back home. While I was very happy to be home, I already miss Cortona with every part of my being and I’ll forever be an Italophile.
More to come about my travels to Rome, Florence, Pisa, Cinque Terre and Venice! I just wanted to share about beautiful Cortona first!