Giving some thought to gifts: a guest post for the Italy Blogging Roundtable

Having been asked to contribute to the Italy Blogging Roundtable on the subject of “gifts”, I am now having problems as to what I can write about. However, as the saying goes, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” or, to put it another way, “a caval donato non si guarda in bocca”. Which means the same thing: if someone has given you a present, don’t complain!

Well, I guess what I could write about here is: did the Italian or the English version of the above proverb precede the other? In other words, which came first: the chicken or the egg? Or, to put it another way,  È nato prima l’uovo o la gallina?

Intriguing as the origin of proverbs can be, though, I am going to have to leave that topic for another day, since what’s called for here is for me to regale you with some thoughts on the subject of “gifts”, or  — in Italian — regali.

When I think of presents or gifts in an Italian context, my thoughts go to when I was child (in the UK) and my (Italian) mother made us hang up a stocking on the night on January 5, so that during the night, the Befana would come and, when we awoke on January 6, we would find our stocking filled with gifts.

And who is the Befana? Well, an old woman who travels round the (Italian-speaking) world, on a broomstick, delivering gifts to good children, and lumps of coal to bad ones.  Why January 6? Well, it’s connected to the Epiphany and the Three Wise Men who came to Bethlehem, bearing … you guessed … gifts.

It wasn’t until I went to school that I discovered that British kids got their presents and their stockings filled on Christmas Day. I duly transmitted this information to my mum who was bemused. But adamant. Our Befana tradition continued until, at a certain point, my parents conceded, and we got Christmas presents. Followed, twelve days later, by our Befana gifts. Not a bad outcome at all ….

On that subject, I wonder when the Christmas present habit took hold in Italy? the 1970s? Another one of those topics I must look into when I have the time. If anyone has any comments on that, do please get in touch. I know, for example, that the Christmas Market phenomenon started no earlier than 1990 in Italy. And I recall debate in Milan in the early-1990s among friends about whether they were going to give Christmas presents.

Coming back to the present day, though, another topic connected with gifts in Italy is the giving and receiving of same.  Apart from birthdays and the holidays, you might find yourself having to take a small gift to someone who has invited you for lunch or dinner. What to take? Now, unless it is your own wine from your own vineyard, taking vino to your host’s house is pretty much a no-no. Why? because wine is assumed to be part of the menu that is being prepared. If nothing else, how do you know what wine would be appropriate with the dishes planned?

So what are the options? Some people take flowers, but these can be a little hard to find especially if, like me, you remember at the last minute and have to rush out to the florist’s. Which closed five minutes before I came rushing up. Another thing: florists’ stores (fioristi or fiorai) are not that easy to find. Correct me if I’m wrong, but there seem to be proportionately fewer florists’ than other kinds of stores. Perhaps, like shoe-repair places, no-one wants to do that job any more.

Assuming you prefer not to take flowers, or have found the place closed, a cake or ice-cream — depending on the season — is a great solution.  Not least, because pastry shops (pasticcerie) and ice-cream parlours (gelaterie) still seem to abound in Italy’s villages, towns and cities. Indeed, their main purpose is to provide lovely cakes and pastries — and often the gelato too — for special occasions. That’s why they are open all day Sunday, and through until at least 8pm, or even later. So they catch the going-out-for-dinner-at-someone’s-house crowd.

What to choose? Either a tray of little pastries, or a cake, or a box of ice-cream. How many, how big, how much? Well, that’s the first question the assistant will ask: How many people? (Per quante persone?) Once you’ve established that, you can move on to selecting either the little pastries, which will be placed on a little gilt-colored cardboard tray, or the cake, which will also be packed daintily, or the flavors of ice-cream. Here, you usually get a half-kilo of gelato, and you can pick four gusti. Say, two crema  — chocolate (cioccolato), hazelnut (nocciola), coffee (caffè), or cream (panna) –, and two frutta  — lemon (limone), strawberry (fragola), peach (pesca), these obviously changing according to the time of year, and what’s in season.

And how is this different from taking wine as a gift? Well, it’s different. For, even if your host has prepared a sweet — not a foregone conclusion — having a choice of two is always appreciated. Worse comes to worst, the ice-cream goes into the freezer, and you will be offered it the next time you visit! In the case of cakes, or pastries that need to be eaten quickly, if there are any left over at the end of the evening, these are often split amongst the guests. So you do get to take some home for breakfast the next day!

Coming now to gifts for birthdays or other occasions, these too can be problematic. Especially in Italy, where it is not assumed that you can return a gift, even if it is still in its box and is obviously unused. At best, you might be offered a credit note (un buono), to be used within the week.  While EU law states differently, the retailer in italy is allowed to set his/her own rules. Thus you are advised to make sure that the gift you are planning to give is what’s really what the person wants.

On the plus side, the great thing about buying presents in Italy is that they can often be gift-wrapped in the store. This, along with the florist’s and the shoe-repair places, a dying tradition, but it is still hanging in there. When you get to the cash desk, you can say “E’ un regalo”, and the assistant will know what to do. Or the assistant him- or herself will ask “E’ un regalo?” and then you can just say, Yes, it is.

What to give? well, that’s easy. Whatever you think is appropriate or the person wants. What not to give? Now that is perhaps more to the point. Avoid soaps and things like that. They could be taken the wrong way. Books are less welcome as gifts in Italy than in countries where  frequent bad weather forces people to stay home and read. When in doubt, give flowers (always an odd number if it’s roses. No, I don’t know why either!) or a plant.

Talking about plants as gifts, I have never asked, but we received a huge number of plants from our Italian friends when Mike and I got married. It made perfect sense. Neither of us was going to see 50 again. He had been married before, and had a fully-furnished house. I hadn’t, but had obviously accumulated a lot of fun stuff over the years. So what to give us? Not toasters or table mats, obviously. So, either singly or collectively, as a spontaneous thing or as an accepted part of the etiquette for what one does where the happy couple are a pair of ancients, our friends brought plants. And we loved them!

At this point, it is time for me to sign off. Before I do, though, I would like to proffer thanks to Alexandra M. Korey from ArtTrav, Gloria from  At Home in Tuscany, and who tweets as @casinadirosa, Jessica Spiegel of Italylogue, Melanie Renzulli of Italofile, and Rebecca of Brigolante, travel writers, bloggers, tweeters extraordinaires on subjects Italian, for having thought up the idea of the Italy Blogging Roundtable, details of which can be found here: An absolute monthly must-read for anyone interested in Italy! Thanks also you five, for this special Guest Issue on the subject of “gifts”, which has given lots of us in the Italy travel writing/blogging/tweeting community the chance to take part. Che bel regalo!