There are oodles of guides out there on life in Italy, on how to fit in and how to get by. Some of them offer excellent advice, some of them make it plain from their ignorance that they have never once set foot in the Bel Paese. I have an advantage, in that I am a foreigner and I have lived here for years, and in that I have lived in both the North and the South of the country. I have decided I am going to write a guide of sorts for all of those who want to move out here or even just to visit… and I am going to start with a few pointers of what NOT to do.
1. Get stressed out when things don’t go according to plan.
In Italy, NOTHING goes according to schedule. Public transport timetables are approximate at best, opening and closing times depend on the whim of the owners/workers, meetings always start with a minimum 15 minute delay (the quarto d’ora academico) and people always want to stop for a coffee or a chat. Don’t mistake this attitude for laziness though – the Italians are hard workers, they just also know how to live life to the fullest and break the day up into manageable chunks. They also know there is no point in getting your panties in a wad over things you can’t control, and they have a point. Freak out over the bus being late, and you mark yourself out as a foreigner instantly.
2. Drink cappuccino after 11am.
The Italians drink milky coffee with breakfast. Anything after that must be espresso, or at most caffé macchiato, which is an espresso with just a dash of hot milk. Order a cappuccino after your full lunch and the locals stomachs will turn ma come fanno a bere il cappuccio a stomaco pieno? How can they drink cappuccino on a full stomach? They will ask themselves. Mostly if you do this they will think you are English. Or American.
3. Assume everywhere takes credit card.
Plenty of shops and restaurants don’t take plastic in any way shape or form. there has been talk of resolving this by introducing a law requiring all commercial activities to have a POS (Point of Sale) device, but this hasn’t come into force so far, or if it has it isn’t being taken very seriously. Don’t get yourself into the embarrassing situation of having eaten your meal or drink your drink only to discover you don’t have a means to pay.
4. Trust your SatNav.
Yeah, that includes the one which claims “comprehensive maps of Europe”. Even if you bought it in Italy. SatNavs here seem to delight in taking you on the most unlikely of round trips through medieval villages through which a larger car may not even fit (this happened to me. I was in a Suzuki Swift and still had to close the wing mirrors to squeeze down the street. In a jeep, I would have been screwed). On top of that, you may find they lead you merrily through ZTL areas – Zone a Traffico Limitato – and that you come home to a nice fat fine for going through the area without the necessary resident’s permit.
5. Expect great pizza in Milan… and risotto in Naples
You’d be forgiven for not being aware that pesto is from Liguria and mozzarella is from Campania, but if you want to make the very best of your culinary experience in Italy (and lets face it, it is one of the reasons for visiting the country), here is a quick cheat sheet:
Genova – Trenette al pesto
Milano – Risotto, Ossobuco
Bergamo – Casoncei with butter and sage
Bologna – Pasta (NEVER SPAGHETTI) alla Bolognese
Parma – Parmesan and Parma ham. Duh.
Naples – Pizza
Rome – Carbonara, Amatriciana
Siena – Ragu
Sicily – Lemon granita, anything with ricotta
This is of course a guideline. But the best thing to do is to look up the dish you want to try and see where it comes from, and to make sure that the restaurant you are looking to eat in is full. Of locals that is, not other tourists.
6. Put parmesan cheese on seafood pasta
Just don’t. Please. You’re gonna have to trust me on this one.
7. Walk barefoot.
Anywhere. This includes at home, on the beach, by the pool, in your garden ANYWHERE. The Italians have a thing about it, they don’t like the idea of dirty feet. They are in general a people quite obsessed with cleanliness and walking around barefoot quite upsets them. Whenever my boyfriend sees someone in the park without their shoes on he says “Oh look, must be a tourist.” The fine ladies stick their noses up and look horrified. I wouldn’t worry too much about them though, everything horrifies them.
8. Plan on conducting your entire trip in English
In the most touristy areas most people do speak a smattering of English, but even then it is not always enough to get by, and if you want to go off the beaten track (I always recommend it) then you are going to need to break out the phrase book. You wont need to speak fluent Italian unless you plan on living here, and even that will come with time, but you do need to bring a phrase book and show you are making the effort – trust me, most of the Italians you meet will be so delighted at your attempts that they will bend over backwards to help you!
9. Women, do not get upset at leers and wolf whistles…
…and men do not get into fights over the above to protect your wife/girlfriend/mother/sister’s honour. Italian guys stare more than British or American guys. They are more obvious about flirting. They make compliments on a regular basis, for no specific reason. It’s harmless, they mean nothing by it, and there is no point in getting upset – just smile and keep walking. Of course, if they insist or try to do more than comment, raise the alarm – there are weirdos everywhere – but 99.9999999% of the time they will move on and forget about it.
10. Get drunk
This goes for men and for women. The Italians rarely overdo it, and if they do it is unlikely to be on purpose, and they will be mortified about it the following day. Most drunk people you see on the streets in Italy are either tourists or alcoholics. Harsh, but true. The Italians like to make a good impression, fare bella figura, and they are all too aware that you are unlikely to do this when falling flat on your face trying to tie up your shoelaces or vomiting into a bush on the roadside. They do drink, they get tipsy even, but they drink slowly, with a lot of food, and they know when to stop. This is good advice to follow anywhere, but even more so here where drunken behaviour is pretty much frowned upon.
I could go on forever. And I will, at some point. I think I may even write a book… what do you think?
With love, from Italy