The Good Things in Expat Life: Leisure and Sports in Italy

Published: 29 Mar at 10 AM
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Filed: Leisure and Sports,Italy

Local Expert Series: Leisure and Sports in Italy by Catherine McNamara

Apart from the effort of raising one's wine glass to one's lips it sometimes seems difficult to locate a passion for fitness or sport in the average Italian. Coming from an active Australian family where tennis comp or swimming training or sailing races were part of the week's activities, I see a lot less passion for sport in the Bel Paese. My female friends wonder when I will stop swimming laps (Aren't you finished with that yet?), and can't understand why I hanker for the snow season to begin. My male friends think I am some kind of super athlete (I'm not, I just need sport to keep sane!)

Catherine on the island of Stromboli
Catherine on the island of Stromboli
But of course there are many, many exceptions and Italy has produced world class tennis players, swimmers, fencing champions, cyclists, sailors, climbers - just about every sport under the sun. Blessed with endless coastlines and beautiful mountains and pretty decent weather, Italians love their cycling, sailing and skiing. They love volleyball and playing shuttlecock on the beach. Kids take swimming classes with school (but I've noticed there are no local inter-school carnivals). Most boys play football and this is definitely a national fixation. Women peddle away on aqua gym bikes and men jog along on bike tracks.

However some attitudes really surprise me. Throughout the year, mostly on weekends, you will see men in Lycra suits and fancy bikes taking over country roads. Hardly a woman in sight - I assume they are at home hanging out the washing or making lunch. But what I've noticed is that you'll never see a guy in an old pair of shorts and T-shirt. They are all kitted out seriously, as if they were taking part in an (fashion?) event.

Mediterranean beaches are spectacular!
Mediterranean beaches are spectacular!
And on the beach you'll see that most people spend more energy on tanning (crossword booklets are big, as are gossip magazines) than swimming. Add to that the fact that you pay to enter many beaches and must hire an umbrella and deck chair.  In this way democracy falls away (front row seats are pricey) and your visions of Bondi Beach are replaced by an ordered, cramped and stifling setting, where everybody is minding everybody else's business.

And get this: some people go to the same beach, same number deck chair, decade after decade!!

Of course there are wild and dramatic beaches down south and on the islands - try the Eolie Islands and Sardinia for size! - but northern and central Italy's beaches can be quite crammed, and full of sunburnt holidaying Germans too.

A ski-racing expat son
A ski-racing expat son
And then there are Italy's spectacular mountains which I adore. In the north, in the centre, even Sicily's Mount Etna - Italy's mountains are divine. Italians love hiking (checked hiking trousers are almost a uniform) and are capable and enthusiastic skiers. You might be surprised how important a ski tan features in winter life (especially back home in the city) and how in bars locals all face the bright alpine sun like sunflowers in a field. Italians are often greatly concerned by how others perceive them so it's crucial to have the right look: flashy skis, an attractive family and possibly a 4x4 Audi. As everywhere, there are lots of show-offs on the slopes and don't go to Cortina unless you are wearing this season's Moncler jacket!

Sunday ski-racing in Cortina
Sunday ski-racing in Cortina
The football world in Italy is vast. If you're interested in enrolling a child in a local club, you'll be surprised how cheap it is as clubs are often sponsored by local businesses. But beware of parental enthusiasm at matches. I did one season with my son at a local club and was bowled over by the vigour - and language! - of the cheering Dads. The football life attracts so many kids with its promise of wealth and adoration. Many players match up with veline - booby presenter girls on TV - and Italy's most famous couple - Totti and Ilary Blasi - are uncrowned royalty in the gossip magazines.

If you are sporty or like to try new experiences in your leisure time, Italy can probably provide you everything you could wish to try. But don't expect locals to understand you if fitness and true passion for sport are part of your life. You'll be handed a glass of wine and told to knock it off.

About the author

Local ExpertCatherine McNamara studied graphic design and modern African history before running off to Paris to become a writer. She worked in an embassy in Mogadishu before the war, has translated welding manuals and modelled shoes, and co-ran a bar and gallery in Accra, Ghana. She now lives in northern Italy where she is restless but staying put. She is the author of the erotic comedy ‘The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy’ (Indigo Dreams Publishing UK), the collection of mostly Africa-based stories ‘Pelt and Other Stories’(coming out in July 2013, Indigo Dreams Publishing UK) and her blog.
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