“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.
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.
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,
Japan Documentary: Cultural Lessons with Yoshi
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)