10 Things You Need to Know About Italy Before You Go

italy

“Who are you and what the hell do you know about Italy?” Good question. I like you: you, this reader who is so immediately avant-garde and ready to doubt my advice and credentials. Not only are you perhaps right to question my knowledge, but by being sceptical of the words of others you are already on the right track to doing well in Italy. So to answer your question, I am Sam, a (slowly becoming more fat) cyclist who has spent the last two months in Italy, living with Italian families and people, while absorbing the language, and the culture, and the food, where the last mentioned bit of absorbing happens in a more literal sense.

Italy can be an amazing place to travel, in fact it’s hard for it to be anything else, but here are some words on some things to expect, some things that you shouldn’t do, and some things that you instead can do to really enrich your experience of this bellissimo paese.

1. The Godfather

This title has dual meaning. On one hand it refers to the mafia (naturally) while, on the other, this first piece of advice is kind of like the boss and precedes all the others. It’s the big rule; we’re about to address stereotypes here. Stereotypes of Italy being things like the throwing of wild gestures, people going ‘eha mario n luigi whata yaduna witha the pizzaa’, and most importantly the mafia.

If you go to Italy don’t wear clothes with Don Corleone on them and don’t joke about people with the mafia. It’s dangerous. Not dangerous because the mafia will come and get you, but dangerous towards your plight of making friendly acquaintances in Italy. The mafia here is like a cancer, they do awful things; they stop Italy from being the great country that it could be. It’s not that funny to a lot of people and it’s not really appreciated when a foreigner comes over and starts kidding around about them. Wearing a shirt with Don Corleone on it in Italy is like walking into a funeral of a AIDS victim with a shirt that has a picture of a broken condom on it. Avoid being that guy.

2. Gestures

When you start to learn the language, you start to imitate the way they talk, if you go to another country and care for their culture, you may try and imitate the way they act. Italians do use gestures, it’s not just some made up stereotype, but if you’re going to use them too then don’t go overboard and start acting everything out with your hands, making huge circles with your arms as you say ‘che cazzzzzzzo’. And just because Italians are animated doesn’t mean you should take 10 seconds to say the word ‘FAN-TAS-TI-CO!!’ while your hands move with such venomous flamboyancy that the old timers are made to take cover under their espresso-supporting wooden tables.

3. Football (as in Soccer)

Ah, you don’t like football and can’t understand how people can get so emotional about 22 people running around in shorts kicking a ball? In Italy keep this to yourself. Just like how you will never understand football fans, this country of football fans won’t understand that you don’t see what they see. Being someone who’s hung out on both sides of the football fence during my life, I understand where you’re coming from. More importantly I understand that if someone really likes football, and you really don’t, this can actually create quite a big barrier between two people. Especially when the latter tries to convince the former about why football is stupid and that they shouldn’t care about it. And for some reason the people who don’t like football do often love to do this, sharing with football fans all their reasons as to why they don’t like it and how illogical the whole thing is, as if they’re Richard Dawkins confronted by a camera and a bunch of Christians who didn’t know any better. If you don’t like football and someone talks to you about it in Italy, just say you’re not really into it, and leave it at that. Or better, if you really want to get involved in Italy, go watch some videos of Roberto Baggio on youtube and then say he’s your favourite footballer ever. But don’t mention his penalty miss in 94 unless you’re willing to watch grown men cry and are willing to cry with them.

4. Le Zanzare

The mosquitoes are here to serve a reminder, a reminder that it’s not all sun and beaches in Italy, but that there’s blood and suffering in the air too.

My new friend Claudio told me that. And it’s true, they’re here, and they will get you. They are the sinister hum that taints this paradise, materialising from the night air, they slink in the shadows and flock down upon those who expose themselves. My record: I have received over 100 bites in one night. Now I know that will sound like a lie or an exaggeration to you, but trust me, it’s true and very believable over here. The beaches and landscapes come at a price in Italy, and not a price so superficial as the money you spent for your flight or hotel, but an old fashioned price, a price that you have to pay in blood.

5. Aperitivo

Wait what the hell do you mean 10 euros for a coca cola? If you find yourself shouting this in English to some poor Italian barista, you’ve probably walked into an aperitivo. They then may try pointing out the buffet behind you, in which case don’t say ‘well I already paid 10 euros for a drink so I’m hardly likely to bloody want to see the prices for a slice of that omelette’.

When you buy a drink in a bar in Italy you are given licence to eat as much as you like of the bar food. This bar food will range from some crisps and nuts, to full out buffets filled with all kinds of delicious goodnesses. The latter is more common to the North and is called an aperitivo, where the drink prices are raised temporarily to compensate for all the food they provide you with. They range from 4 euros to 10 generally, with most lying in the middle, and you can easily have a whole dinner at one of these places. They are the ideal thing for broke, beer thirsty, pub addicts who can find themselves in the early evening at a bar with a pint of beer and a five course dinner for 5 euros.

Now this piece of advice applies much more to British people with our mild-mannered, bumbling and un-self-assured hesitancies, but… take as much as you like! Buy only one drink and then go back to the buffet 10 times. Be stingy. Make those pennies work, after all this is the country of tight pursed misers. Remember it was called the Merchant of Venice, not the Merchant of some place not in Italy. After I went back to a buffet 7 times in Florence, I was actually taken to the side by someone who complimented me, saying that what I was doing was truly ‘il spirito di Firenze’.

6. Stai Tranquillo and Basta

Stai tranquillo literally translates to stay/be calm. People will tell you to stai tranquillo a lot in Italy. For the first month I was here I translated this as basically saying ‘calm down’, which for me is a pretty rude and patronising thing to say to someone. At times I would even reply, ‘No, YOU stai tranquillo’. But it just means don’t worry, or everything’s good, so don’t be an idiot like I was and get enraged every time someone is just being nice to you. Another common word is Basta, which you will hear all the time and kind of sounds like a Scottish person calling you a bastard. But nobody’s calling you names, it just means stop or enough. I don’t know if you’d ever have the same problems that I had with misunderstanding these words, but I thought I’d at least try to help you avoiding my fate of walking around Italy for a while wondering why everyone thought I was hyperactive bastard.

7. Learn some Italian

You’re going to Italy in a month? Two weeks? Tomorrow? That’s plenty of time to learn some restaurant Italian. Don’t just be another guy who assumes that everyone will speak English to you, or even worse then gets annoyed when people don’t understand you no matter how loud you shout. It’s really not that tricky to get by in another European language, and here are some basics that should get you through any eating experience in Italy;

Prendo (I’ll have) tre birre, un caffè, una pizza etc.
Per favore, Grazie (please, thankyou)
Un tavolo per due (a table for two)
Che cazzo vuoi? Sto provando a mangiare (what the dick do you want? I’m trying to eat)

The longer you plan on staying in Italy, the more I’d recommend learning the language. People appreciate that for English people there’s not much economic viability in learning Italian, and that it’s truly an endeavour of love. They really appreciate that you take the time and make the effort to understand the country. It’s not just an ability to communicate that learning the language gives you, but it gives you a welcome to many places, makes people a lot more friendly towards you and a lot more interested in you.

8. Eating in Italy

Generally as a rule, don’t eat near the tourist attractions. Instead local knowledge is your best friend here, and is the key that will unlock the culinary treasure chest of the nation. This local knowledge is easy to find too, you can use couch surfing to stay with or meet up with locals, or more simply just ask people on the street. Food culture really does exist in Italy, it’s not a stereotype to say that most people take eating quite seriously and will have at least mildly strong opinions about where and what you should be eating. The best question you can ask a local is ‘dove dovreste mangiare tu ora?’, which means where would you eat right now. The time element is important as if you really want to get a good taste of the country you should try to eat the things that they would at each point in the day. The correct thing to eat changes a lot with the movement of the hours, and also with the weather. If you ask this question and follow the words your given, you will get a true experience of the Mediterranean diet and way of eating, which I’m assuming is probably one of the reasons you came to Italy for. Often there will be a good reason for why they eat that specific thing at that specific time, so you’ll be glad you trusted in their advice.

9. Don’t Give Everyone Two Kisses

I know you might not do the two kisses where you’re from, and you may be excited to go a place where they do, but that doesn’t mean you should do it on every occasion when you say hello to someone. Some people really go overboard with trying to copy this culture, to the extent where I saw one tourist girl even get up and give two kisses to a waiter when he came over and asked what they wanted. Ok, that’s not true, but I’ve seen things that are almost as stupid in this respect, though would take much longer to explain and wouldn’t be very interesting. But the point would remain valid, and if you combine over kissing people, with making some huge hand gestures and shouting fantastico, people will hate you. A lot. While doing any one of these things on it’s own will stay warrant a decent amount of hate too.

10. Romantic Depictions

People in Italy are often from their region first, and their country second. This is less the case with the youth, though still holds some truth. With these strong and diverse senses of identity comes strong and diverse depictions of each region, and in this way, each Italian comes to hold an almost romanticised view of each different area of Italy. For example, the idea that the Fiorentines speak the most beautiful Italian, or that the Genovese pesto is the only pesto worth eating, or the conception that you can’t walk 100m down a Napolitan street without being robbed. While a lot of these ideas are based on some factual basis, they’re not as strict as what some Italians will have you believe.

There’s a lot of tradition and people can be quite adamant about doing things in a certain way. That’s a reason for why Starbucks will never take off in Italy, because here you don’t go fucking around with coffee by putting ice in it. This is a nice thing about Italy, but also I think that this way you have to do things might be slightly deconstructive to progress. When someone is super stringent about how you have to do something in Italy, where you should go, or what you absolutely can’t do, don’t always take it as law, but instead be grateful for the words and register them silently with a pinch of salt.

SO THERE YOU HAVE IT, 10 things to keep in mind for your summer holiday to Italy. Though these are just the basics, the rest you’ll just have to find out for yourself.

Lots of love, and see you out here,

Samuele

Related Posts

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Mission Total Immersion 2: La Vendetta
Love, Fear and Friendship by the lakes
Me speaking Italian and how to learn a language in 3 months
The Story so Far (Starting with a cycle from Auschwitz to London with only 40 euros, and ending now here working in a sex district on Japan, a sum up of the events of this last year)

About Sam

Sam is a go getter, he's one badass mudda', when he wants something, he gets it, before he even wants it, he cycled from Poland to London with only 40 euros, he could do it again, men want to be him, women want to be him, mums like him, he is invited into people's houses on A REGULAR BASIS, he makes good soup, he eats good soup, he's that guy at the party who knows everyone, even if he knows no-one, he's out in the world seeking real stories and adventures, and the world be givin' it to him.
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4 Responses to 10 Things You Need to Know About Italy Before You Go

  1. Sara says:

    Hi, being Italian I felt like dropping a line to give you my opinion, I hope you don’t mind. Almost everything you say sounds right, you truly got us Italians and that is quite amazing if you only spent two months here (my husband’s been here for 4 years and I still have to explain a lot to him), particularly the godfather paragraph: we do hate it when foreigners think mafia is something lo laugh at, don’t take it seriously or wear stupid don Corleone t-shirts. And well done with the gestures paragraph: they never look right when foreign people do it, and it’s quite funny when they think it is necessary to add hand movements to your words. Sometimes this imitations make us feel like we are being mocked, and we certainly don’t like that as we are quite a welcoming people and it doesn’t feel right when you open your house to a traveler and he starts making fun of the way you move. So, be amazed at it if you like, but keep it to yourself. Aperitivo though, I am not sure if you got that one right. Glad to hear you enjoyed lots of complimentary food, but it’s polite to order at least 2+ drinks if you intend to have dinner there! The comment you got about the “spirito fiorentino” sounded a little sarcastic to me, as in “you have learned to do what people do here: get as much as they can spending as little as they can” so I wouldn’t be too proud eheheheh ;-) Excellent advice on the kisses and the eating out, I love it when foreigners understand that there is a reason for everything, that we take food seriously and that old grandmothers are not crazy.

    Well, you made me smile and made my day, as I am stranded in Australia right now missing home like never before… so thank you for being so kind to us, usually tourists come to laugh at us and comment on how weird and inconsistent we are, focusing on our sick politicians and forgetting to look into our hearts. (Forgive some grammar mistakes here and there, I am working on them!)

    • Sam says:

      Forgive me for only replying to this now. I am the worst blogger* on the internet and get to my comments a few months later. I am correcting that now, so new commenters know I will get back to you ASAP my friends. But I always wanted to reply to this comment in particular, and its been niggling at the back of my head since you originally posted it.

      I remember when I first started reading this comment, my heart jumped up into my mouth ‘Hi, being Italian I felt like dropping a line and giving you my opinion. I hope you don’t mind.’ This sounded like you were going to tear me apart. But then you suddenly agreed with me and paid respect for how much I’d learnt about Italy, and I found myself gradually relaxing and in fact feeling even complimented as I moved through your words. It means a lot to have someone from the country agree with me and let me know I’m not just talking bullshit (like usual).

      Yea the bit about the aperitivo eating as much as you like was written in a bit of tongue and cheek fashion, and you are right it is courteous to buy a couple of drinks if you are going to pig out. However the guy who said to me il spirito fiorentino may have been sarcastic, but we actually got chatting and I stayed at his house a while, and he is a good friend now… haha

      Again thanks for the comment, I don’t get many and they really make my day. When someone takes the time to come out and express what they think, or show that they enjoyed something I wrote, it really means a lot. I pour a lot into this blog, and I don’t expect or ask for anything in return, so it’s a delight and a surprise to have you come along Sara, and please drop an opinion anytime.

      *note: worst blogger in respect to communicating with my audience, but actually best blogger in terms of content and super good website.

  2. Pingback: Documentary pt.2 : Cultural Lessons with Yoshi | Samuel's Travels

  3. Licia says:

    I am not Italian but work in Italy since 1998 in a big hotel in Florence. 90% of our guests are Americans and, yes, I believe that, at this point, my experience about American behaviours is quite big. Beside many points already considered in the comments above, I\’d like to point on a basic aspect that many American tourists have in common: they like to point on situations they dislike about other countries (in this case Italy) and keep forgetting the real situation of the country they are coming from. The first example coming to my mind is when a lady from Texas complained with my director that in the country she was coming from you don\’t have to pay for water at a restaurant, ever! She totally forgot, however (but not so my director), that her sweet husband had to go the the hospital in Florence after a bad fall he had walking downtown. His wrist had to be put in a plaster cast and, believe it or not, at a cost of 7 euros (ER fees) all included. Try to do the same in the US… The father of a good friend of mine (American from upstate New York, Buffalo), had to sell his house to pay for part of the hospital expenses after he was diagnosed with brain cancer (insurance, apparently, did not over that disease!?). He died in 2009… He had to go to live with his son in the last period of his unlucky life, but, my friends, at the restaurant the water, from the faucet of course, was FREE!!!! Another thing, and this happened to me during my last trip to the US, which is apparently common among Americans flying abroad, is the sense of safety they feel just in their homeland. The thing could be considered quite normal, I know, since it is obvious to have more confidence in areas and situations we know perfectly and we are at ease with. But to get to the point, and this is what I have seen with my eyes, to kiss the tar of the airport\’s runway (we were just landed in Boston) to show the happiness of being back to \”supersafe\” USA from an American couple (quite funny, btw, since they were pretty huge people indeed and had a few problems to kneel), it makes me think that, maybe, many Americans (I am saying many because i heard the conversations of many other Americans tourists talking about this particular subject) are partially unaware of the country they are living in. Maybe, just to refresh their mind, they should go here sometimes: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/crime/2012/12/gun_death_tally_every_american_gun_death_since_newtown_sandy_hook_shooting.html. I\’ve never, never, never seen such a warzone neither in Italy, nor in Greece, where I am from. Maybe, if they considered more also the negative aspects of the country they come from, and not just the positive ones (like the free water at the restaurants), the Americans would get along much better with the rest of the world. No offense people. Be positive! Licia

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