There is nothing worse than a cultural misunderstanding, especially if it has the potential to ruin a trip. I find these incidents especially painful in Italy simply because they can so easily be avoided if you’re properly prepared. Every time I happen to overhear an American traveler recounting some miscommunication, I make a mental note. There are, of course, your classic repeat offenders, but there are also some that stand out because they represent the points at which these two cultures differ. Hence, they are the same things that Italians misconstrue when they’re on American soil. So instead of letting another potential mix-up ruin even just one afternoon of someone’s long awaited adventure, I thought I’d jot down ten of the most common cultural disparities specifically for Americans traveling in Italy. Knowing these before you leave will save you headache and heartache, I promise!
1. Personal Space
Personal space is a very different thing in Italy. To be clear, it doesn’t exist. Homes in Italy are much smaller than in America, as are most spaces in general, so Italians have become very comfortable existing in close quarters. There are no wide sidewalks, no enormous 30-person elevators, and hardly any of the monstrously huge cars we drive in the Unites States. When you are waiting in a store, do not be surprised if people stand much closer than you’re used to. If you are walking towards people on the sidewalk they will probably not move. If you don’t move either, you will get a bump in the shoulder. I’ve seen Italians do it to each other so try not to take it personally. If that is too hard, make the effort to move.
Bonus Tip: one of the reasons for the many lovely piazzas in Italian towns (at least according to me) is because these are basically the equivalent of their outdoor living room. In most cities (weather permitting) there is an obligatory 5-7:00pm piazza walk, which means everyone comes out and stretches their legs. This is the time to been “seen” out and about, grab a gelato, and meet up with friends.
2. Lines Don’t Exist in Italy
Italians, unlike Americans, do not believe in lines. What you will more likely find in those places where lines typically form is a kind of ambiguous blob. The unspoken rule is whoever is the most clever or most aggressive and gets to the front first, wins. Old ladies, mothers with children, even the children themselves will cut you without a thought. Only it’s important to remember that they don’t see it as cutting, they just got there first…in some way or another. So if you’re in a hurry, be ready to be aggressive. If you are up to it you can be vocal about having been there first. However, if you’re shy, just try not to take it personally…and get ready to wait a little longer.
Bonus Tip: The alternate and very popular line technique in Italy is the “take a number” system, so look out for this. If you go into a bakery, a panino shop, the grocery store, or even the post office, look for the box dispensing numbers and grab one. It’s the most civilized line system they have!
3. Pick Pocketing
I hate putting things like this in our blogs about Italy, but unfortunately it’s the reality. I met two people in the last few weeks whom had their wallets stolen. And not from open bags or wallets in obvious places either. This is above all an issue in Rome, but you should be aware at all times regardless. Just because you’re on vacation doesn’t mean the pickpockets are.
Bonus Tip: When you are on the bus or taking the metro, you are ten times more vulnerable. These are the times to be hyper aware. And ladies, no bags without zippers (I don’t care how cute they are)!
Admittedly, this is a rather subjective point so take from it what you will. Dressing in Italy, I argue, is a bit different from most other places. Italians tend to dress very nicely for everyday activities so the more casual you dress the more you will stand out. For example, you would never see an Italian (even a teenager) in their gym clothes or pajamas (sweatshirt and sweatpants) outside the house as you so frequently do in the states. It simply is not done. If you want to blend, leave these clothes at home. This of course does not mean being uncomfortable, but perhaps just dressing up a little more than usual (and hence not standing out as much). This will of course help with issue #3 above.
Important: I never apply this rule to shoes. Italian woman are somehow able to wear adorable shoes and not die, but I find this is not the case for Americans. In cities where walking is the main mode of transportation and streets are often made of cobblestone, be smart, and bring only your most comfortable shoes.
Bonus tip: One thing you should never leave at home is a scarf! It is the foundation of a great European outfit in the winter and in the summer it’s an essential accessory to have on hand when visiting churches (or perhaps, say, the Vatican) and you need cover you legs and arms to be allowed inside!
5. The Magic T
Stores in Italy are not divided into the same categories as American stores are. There is no CVS or Duane Reade and there are no buy-everything-at-once stores like Target or Walmart. The most important store distinction to know about (since it is the most subtle) is the magic white “T” that some bars (coffee bars not beer bars) will post outside their establishment (see photo). This “T” technically stands for Tabacchi (tobacco) and tells you that they sell cigarettes. However, it also tells you that they sell a slew of other useful things like bus tickets, stamps, calling cards for international calls and for your local Italian cell phone (if you have one), among other things.
All the rest of our tips fall under the categories of “food ordering” and “food eating”:
6. How to Order at Most Bars & Other Potential Foibles when Trying to Eat in Italy
At most bars (and again, by “bar” I mean a coffee bar) the practice is that you go to the register first and order what you want, pay, and then take your receipt to the counter to get what you paid for. This often means stopping at the pastry counter first and then making your way to the coffee counter to order your drink. Show them the receipt, but also tell them what you want just in case. For example, an espresso and a macchiato (espresso with a splash of milk) usually cost the same so it’s helpful to clarify which one you ordered. This may seem rather excessive just to get your breakfast, however the nice thing it affords you is the freedom to enjoy, take your time, and leave whenever you like. These same bars often also serve lunch and the system is the same: order first, pay, and then retrieve your food.
Bonus tip: if they offer to let you sit and bring you your coffee, kindly decline. When you sit at a coffee bar (and really any eating establishment) there is a surcharge attached. What should be 5 Euro can become 21 Euro simply by sitting. If it’s lunchtime perhaps just enquire about the coperto or “cover” (see below).
7. Gelato Size Scams
In Italy, gelato is not served by the scoop but by the cup or cone size. Any respectable location will have the cups out with the prices attached. These should range from 2 – 5 euro. A 5 Euro gelato would be very large. I have found many places near touristy locations, however, do not label their cups. They let you point and then they charge you whatever they like. What should cost at most 3 Euro can suddenly be 10 or even 15 Euro. So word to the wise, DO NOT order unless the price is clearly labeled. Note: At some locations you will have to pay first just as with the coffee bars. When in doubt, watch what others are doing and follow suite.
Bonus tip: A rule throughout Italy is that if you want to eat, leave the touristy area. Walk even two blocks away and the prices can drop significantly.
8. The Rule of Milk
I tell everyone this rule because I am sensitive to it, but most people don’t care and I think that is fine too. In Italy (though less so now in the big touristy towns where people are used to the western style) they do not order coffee with milk after 11am. Meaning, cappuccinos and café lattes (note: you must say café latte or you might get a cup of hot milk) are reserved for the morning time only. Italians feel that milk is bit heavy on the digestive system (which it is) and limit it to the am hours. If you order a cappuccino at 3pm or, even worse, after a meal, you may get a funny look. I just want you know what that look is about.
Bonus tip: coffee “to go” does not exist. They have started keeping Styrofoam cups for Americans who ask, but these are not Starbucks size coffees, people. They are small enough to manage in a five-minute stop at the bar. If you can, try and enjoy it standing like the locals. It’s actually quite nice.
Extra bonus tip: food “to go” in general is a rather odd concept in Italy. Other than pizza you’ll rarely see Italians bringing home take out food and they never take doggie bags home from a meal out.
Extra extra bonus tip: In addition, the food you can get at easy and fast panino or kebab shops should be enjoyed in those establishments. Italians NEVER eat and walk at the same time and they will often look at you funny or perhaps yell out a amusing, yet poignant, “buon appetito” if you walk by chowing down a kebab. If you want to blend, take a seat, eat, and then walk.
9. Water Comes in a Bottle
This is hard rule for most Americans to swallow (get it!?). When you eat out the water costs money and it’s served in a bottle (or else provided by the restaurant’s special purified taps). Asking for tap water is perfectly acceptable but rarely done. The water is fine to drink, if a little mineral-ly, but seeing as you’ve already made the effort to sit at a restaurant (which means paying what is called the coperto, see below) you might as well have some bottled water too. If it feels like a silly expense, get the fizzy water so it feels more special.
10. Tipping in Italy
Tipping is a moving target these days in Italy. Technically, according to the old system, there is no such thing. When you order at the bar there is no waitress, hence no tipping. When you chose to sit most restaurant add a cover charge, called either the coperto (cover) or pane (bread). This could range from 1-3 Euro per person and this constitutes the tip (meaning you add nothing onto the bill!). Sometimes, however, this charge is left off the bill in an attempt to get foreigners to leave more money. If this happens, just leave the same amount (2-3 Euro a head) and not the 20% we’re used to in the states. This lack of tipping will of course explain why service is not quite up to typical American standards. For example, they will not ask you how your food is ten times (I love this!) and they may be a little hard to get a hold of when you’re ready for the bill. If you’re in a hurry, just go inside and pay. It’s the easiest thing to do in most cases.
I hope these little tips will help you walk into these situations with more confidence than before and help you not let little things like lines (or the lack thereof) ruin your day. In the end, just remember, we’re from different cultures and there are many things we do differently. You never know, you may like the way they do things better. At the very least, you’ll have the hang of it before you’ve even touched down.