For Italians a traffic light is the beginning of a "philosophical investigation."
In Italy rules are not obeyed as they are elsewhere. We think it's an insult to our intelligence to comply with a regulation. Obedience is boring. We want to think about it. We want to decide whether a particular law applies to our specific case. In that place, at that time.
For instance, traffic laws are interpreted a bit differently in Italy. Instead of red meaning "stop" and green meaning "go" for Italians a traffic light is the beginning of a "philosophical investigation."
When many Italians see a stoplight, their brain perceives no prohibition (Red! Stop! Do not pass!). Instead, they see a stimulus. OK, then. What kind of red is it? A pedestrian red? But it's seven in the morning. There are no pedestrians about this early. That means it's a negotiable red; it's a "not-quite-red." So we can go. Or is it a red at an intersection? What kind of intersection? You can see what's coming here, and the road is clear. So it's not a red, it's an "almost red," a "relative red." What do we do? We think about it for a bit, then we go.
And what if it's a red at a dangerous intersection with traffic you can't see arriving at high speed? What kind of question is that? We stop, of course, and wait for the green light. In Florence they have an expression: "rosso pieno" (full red). Rosso (red) is a bureaucratic formula, and pieno (full) is a personal comment.
There is one rule, by the way, that cannot be violated. It is wrong, and possibly illegal, to order a cappuccino after 10 a.m. This is worse than eating pizza in the middle of the day. It is non-negotiable. Discussion over. Rosso pieno.
Excerpted from La Bella Figura ("La testa degli italiani" - "Italianen voor gevorderden") ©2006