8 Things To Know Before Going to Italy: Advice from an American Expat

Italy is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, and for good reason. The art, history, lifestyle, food, wine, fashion, and famous auto brands are what bring tourists from all over the globe. However, without first understanding some things about Italian culture, many tourists are surprised to learn a thing or two about how to conduct themselves and the cultural expectations they set without realizing that may hinder their experience here. When you travel, it’s difficult to leave your own culture at the door…er, boarder. It’s natural to use your own cultural lens to set your expectations for another country or cultural behavior, even if subconsciously. This phenomenon is called ethnocentrism (you just learned a fancy sociological term!). Although it is normal, when traveling, it’s important to try to stay open minded.

Here are a list of 8 misconceptions and things you should know (and what to expect) before you come to this glorious country.

  1. Different view of customer service

What’s the number one complaint I hear from (mostly English speaking) tourists? “Italian customer service is horrible!” Before you get worried, it’s important to know that Italian servers do not work for tips, unless they work at a very nice restaurant with tourists as a main clientele. Americans are known to tip at those kinds of places, even though it is not the norm here in Italy. Italians don’t work for tips, so frankly, they don’t feel the need to kiss anyone’s ass. They are, however, polite and helpful in a different way than in the US. They are not fake; they are doing their jobs, and the important thing is that they’re courteous, the food is good, and you have what you need. Now, about timing; sit-down meals in Italy tend to be between 2-4 hours, sometimes more on special occasions. Seriously. Eating is an event in Italy, and that’s one thing I love about this culture. If you plan on having a quick meal, you’d be better off grabbing a sandwich or a slice of pizza somewhere. Italians enjoy their meals leisurely and will never rush you. In the US, coming from someone who has worked in the service industry, restaurants are all about turning and burning. The faster the tables finish, the faster they can seat the next party and therefore, make more money. Italians would have a heart attack if they knew that about American restaurants. In Italy, it’s considered rude for the server to bring you your bill before you ask for it. They also don’t wait on you hand and foot, but they do make sure you have what you need and check in often enough, leaving you time to enjoy dinner (or lunch) conversation, digest, and experience la dolce vita without a rush. Please don’t expect anything else, or you will be gravely irritated. I will admit, though, that I have encountered my fair share of rude shop assistants who could care less that I would like to spend my money there…so I didn’t.

2. Difference of Attitudes between northern and southern cities

First of all, Italians in general are some of the warmest and hospitable people I’ve met. Southern Italians have a reputation of being more open and friendly than Northerners, in general, but that’s not to say that people from northern Italy are rude. I live in Florence and can tell you that Florentines have a reputation all their own of being snobs, which is half true. Southern Italian mentality, behavior and food are closer to what we think of outside of Italy when we think of Italians. That’s because Italian immigrants back in the day between 1867-1930 were mostly from southern Italy, therefore bringing their culture around the world, shaping what we know (or think we know) about Italians and their stereotypes. The boisterous, animated family yelling and passing plates of food, sitting around a table that is reminiscent of The Last Supper, with nonna (grandma) force feeding you forkfuls of pasta even after you’ve reached your stomach’s limit is the stereotype we learned through the Italian-Americans that influenced the east coast after their immigration wave to the US. Obviously that’s not how everyone is, but that is more of a Southern Italian thing. Northerners tend to be more refined and fashionable, seeing as how Milan is the fashion capital of the world, extending it’s influence throughout the country of Italy. The attitudes, in general, are different, and life tends to be even slower in the south. To be fair, they are mostly coastal; I mean, what beach region in the world isn’t a little slower than the norm? The north and the south have a bit of a bitter rivalry, so just keep your preferences to yourself and you’ll be fine.

3. Americanized Italian food Vs. REAL Italian food

Sorry to break it you, but Olive Garden is not real Italian food. Whatever you order there, stays there. Don’t be surprised when you get a strange look after asking for Chicken Alfredo, then being upset that they don’t have it and don’t even know what it is. Don’t bother trying to explain. When you look at Italian menus, you will notice they’re separated into categories such as antipasti (appetizers), primi piatti (first dishes, pasta), second piatti (second dishes, meat, sometimes further categorized into terra or mare categories, meaning land or sea), pizze (plural of pizza), and dolci (dessert). Unlike in the US, there is normally no meat in pasta dishes. There are exceptions, but generally it’s uncommon. Each region of Italy also has it’s own specialties, which vary greatly and are, in my opinion, what you should opt for when you can. Florence, for example, is in Tuscany, which is famous for its bistecca alla fiorentina (Florentine steak), which you pay per kilogram (pre-cooked weight) because it’s huge and only cooked rare/medium rare, and crostini (small slices of bread with a special spread, historically from Tuscany). Pesto is from Genoa, and is strictly for pasta, so don’t ask for it on panini (sandwiches). Ragu alla Bolognese, a delicious meaty pasta sauce, is from Bologna. Parmigiano (parmesan cheese) is from Parma and comes grated or in thick wedges/chunks, which is delicious with bold red wine. The list could go on, but those are the best know ones. Also, what you know as marinara sauce is called sugo di pomodoro (tomato sauce) in Italy. No one will know what you’re talking about if you say marinara.

4. Espresso Vs. Coffee

Italians drink espresso, but the word they use is caffé, meaning coffee, although espresso is also an Italian word. I wrote a whole blog post just on the topic of how to order coffee in Italy. Yes, there is THAT much to know! Find it here. Coffee shops are called bars, and you don’t take your coffee to go. Weird, right? That’s a tough one for busy Americans to get used to. Only a select few Americanized, Starbucks wannabes offer more than the typical Italian coffee offerings, so if you absolutely NEED your (insert ridiculous, overpriced and too-many-word-coffee-order here), you’d better Google it ahead of time.

5. The smoking policy

This one still bothers me, but, hey, it’s Europe I guess. Almost everyone smokes! It’s still considered fashionable and cool to suck on a cancer stick, and I’ve seen kids that look no older than 12 smoking outside before school. It’s crazy, and it breaks my heart! It’s such a pity to see women that would be otherwise beautiful, but due to smoking, are full of wrinkles, and look old and gray before they’ve even reached the age of 45. I also hate breathing in everyone else’s cigarettes on a daily basis, so I avoid popular smoking areas if I can and walk past the smoker strolling in front of me to avoid being downwind. I don’t know about the rest of the US, but there is a law in California that prohibits smoking inside, and near public places within 20 feet from an entrance. I miss that. Also, people are not as sensitive to non-smokers when in a group, so don’t be surprised if it gets blown your way without a care. Just move and try not to make it a big deal. Maybe take a trip to the country to get some fresh air to rejuvenate your poor lungs. If you’re a smoker, well, you’ll fit right in.

6. Don’t feed the Gypsys

Ok, this isn’t only in Italy, but it’s something worth knowing. Gypsys are a real thing, and a trained eye can spot them from a mile away. You’ll mostly see women: long flowing skirts (better for stowing stolen things, my dear), long black greasy hair parted down the middle with front hair twisted to be kept out of their face, and of course, begging or finding their way into crowds to pickpocket. Be aware of these people. The older women tend to stay in the same place all day with a scarf over their hair, facing the ground holding a cup for coins. Don’t give these people money and hold onto your things when they pass by you. I know it may seem paranoid, or a bit judgmental, but you’ll wish you had when you get back to your hotel and discover your wallet, camera, phone, or passport is gone! They’re good. Real good. And they pray on tourists, because Italians know to steer clear of them. They don’t contribute to society as they’ve historically been exiled, been victims of genocide, and are a nomadic people. Personally, I think the history of the people we call Gypsys is fascinating, and I have to admit, they’ve been through a lot, so they’re wary of us just as much as we are of them. Sex slavery, forced prostitution, and drugs are only a part of their dark culture, but they don’t welcome outsiders and handle things on their own. They have a private culture, so it’s difficult to understand them but from what I’ve heard, they are richer than we can imagine, but continue to beg and steal as it is their lifestyle. Either way, just don’t give them money and pay attention.

7. You are what you wear

Whether or not you care about big fashion brands, or dress casual or upscale in your normal life at home, you need to be aware that Italians care about looking nice. In fact, they have a word for being dressed nicely and making a good impression with how they carry themselves. It’s called la bella figura. You can translate this to a lot of different contexts, but basically it means looking good in public. They put effort into their style, clothing, even down to the finest details. This goes for men and women. Most people in Italy are well dressed, which doesn’t necessarily mean expensive, or high end fashion, just what looks good. Even if you’re on a backpackers budget, you can try a little bit to seem put together while you’re in Italy. Basic colors, no short-shorts, one quality piece, and a balance between loose and tight fitting clothes are the general ways to stay on the safe side. Italians see la bella figura as a form of self respect. Also, because we all like to look at aesthetically pleasing things and people, it’s nice to be in a place where everyone dresses a little nicer than normal. Try it out, and you’ll find yourself walking a little taller, with more confidence and you’ll soon understand why Italians dress the way they do. It is possible to mix style and comfort, but please don’t wear sandals/thongs/flip flops in a city where there is no beach. Not only do Italians think it’s tacky, it is also impractical, and after a few hours walking around on uneven cobblestone streets, you’ll get it. If it’s warmer weather, opt for cute sandals with a heel strap that are secure on your foot, cute yet comfy ballet flats, or sturdy open toed shoes to find the balance of fashionable, summer friendly and walkable. Your feet will thank you. Right now in Florence there is an upcoming trend of Birkenstock sandals (I can already hear my mom saying “I told you they’d come back in style!”), Adidas sneakers (the ones with the 3 colored stripes on the side), and white Chuck Taylor Converse which are fashionable here at any age. Being fashionable is not as difficult (or uncomfortable) as you think!

8. Pronunciation is key

Ok, so you have a hard time rolling your R’s in other languages. You’re not alone. But while in Italy, why not try and practice? Italians will appreciate the effort, even if they speak English. Please, for respect of the country and language, learn a few key phrases and correct pronunciation! I loved my Duolingo app and treated it like a game in the months before my departure date. Use it, listen, repeat and practice! You’ll be speaking some key phrases before you know it and impressing the locals in no time!
So there you have it. 8 things to be aware of before coming to Italy! Any questions? Leave them in a comment and I’ll be happy to answer.

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