Top Ten Tips for Americans Traveling in Italy

Florence_italyThere 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!
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Bella Figura: How to Toast in Italy

bella_figuraIn Italy, where beauty never takes a back seat, there is a phrase used to describe this country-wide devotion to grace and class: La Bella Figura.Sophia_loren The phrase was invented by Sophia Loren…ok it wasn’t, but it might as well have been (I mean, who gets off a airplane with no wrinkles?!?) It technically translates to “the beautiful figure” and describes a way of life and a system of etiquette innately understood by all Italians. It tells you how to look and how to behave in particular circumstances (i.e. with class). It means basically that your barista will often be better dressed than you and at least as well dressed as the cop and bus driver sipping on the café he just made them. It means that the woman riding a bicycle in high heels will never fall and if she does, someone will catch her. But it also means “looking good” socially. It is why the word awkward doesn’t exist in the Italian language or the Italian mentality (I have tried to explain it many times, it is not easy.)
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Photo of the Week: Panettone & Pandoro

Photo of the Week: Panettone & Pandoro

If you plan on spending Christmas in Italy, there are two words you need you know: Panettone and Pandoro. These are two somewhat similar looking (but very different tasting) traditional sweet breads that are enjoyed during the holiday season. They are sold in large cardboard containers or exciting packaging (as pictured above) and come out in the hundreds, piled high in grocery stores, and lining the walls of bars and bakeries all over Italy.

Panettone is a sweet bread from Milan and is shaped like the cupola of a dome. The process to make this seemingly simple desert is actually rather lengthy and difficult, requiring many days and at least three separate dough risings. The final product, a fluffy, light dough, is filled with candied fruits and/or raisons. It is usually served with a sweet drink, often hot, and with mascarpone on top.

Pandoro, or Pan d’oro (bread of gold or golden bread), is a yeast bread baked in the shape of an 8-pointed star. Equally flaky and light, but without the candied fruit, many brands come with powdered sugar that is sprinkled all over to create a “snow-covered” effect. Like the panettone, it can also be served with mascarpone, a chantilly cream, or even gelato.

I personally enjoy my Pandoro dipped in coffee the morning after. Next time you’re here, make sure you try it. It only comes out once a year!

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Renzi & Le Cascine: Greenspace in Florence

It’s a fact. Florence lacks green space. Aside from the banks of the Arno and a handful of piazzas on the outskirts, there are hardly any trees to be found in the historic city center. I almost didn’t notice until well into my first year in Florence. Perhaps I was used to this void, having moved from another urban center (New York), or maybe I was just so distracted by the city’s stunning beauty (albeit of the less animate variety). I think it hit me when the urge for a picnic first took hold and I suddenly found myself at a complete loss for where to go to enjoy some grassy solitude within walking distance.

There are, of course, the Boboli gardens, but without the Amici degli Uffizi card you’re looking at 10 euros just to enjoy their shady trees for a day. Even the small park along the southern side of the Arno (just past Ponte alle Grazie) known as La Spiagga (the “beach”), can be a little less than inviting after a Friday or Saturday night. A bus ticket to Fiesole or Pratolino can help you feel more immersed in nature, but seems excessively far just to hear the sound of leaves rustling. Continue reading…

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Buon Natale! Happy Holidays, Italian Style

The holidays are by far my favorite time of year; the fresh smell of pine needles, the sweet sounds of carolers, and the blatant overuse of lighted decorations leading to temporary blindness. It doesn’t get much better than when Santa comes to town.

But what’s it like in Italy? Do they have pumpkin spice lattes and peppermint infused…well…everything? Do they celebrate Black Friday with discounts on their discounts? Are there therapy groups for Italians who get overwhelmed with shopping or depressed by the thought of 48 hours spent with close family? What are these magical days like for our European friends?

Sadly, I have never spent an actual Christmas day in Italy. The holidays always seemed to call me back home. I was however in Florence once very late into December (the 22nd…) due to some very poor planning. It was two years ago and Florence had one of its worst snowstorms ever. Ok…”storm” may be an exaggeration. Being from the east coast originally, a little white powder on the ground has never deterred me from my daily activities. However, I woke up that morning to a city that was literally shutdown. After walking down to my favorite coffee spot, I knew I was in trouble when I saw that almost every museum in town was closed. There was not a lost tourist or frantic Florentine to be seen. Continue reading…

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