Authentic pizza, pasta, cups of espresso, leather bags, historical sites, religious relics, and scoops of gelato often make a tourist’s itinerary when visiting Italy. But don’t you forget about the most important thing that completes the entire country – the locals.
Facts about the locals and their culture are usually ignored and leave first-timers waiting for shops to open in the afternoon or worse, lost and frustrated in a “bar” because they keep on getting a glass of milk when they ask for a “latte”.
Learn the basics and find out 10 things that can shock you if it’s your first time in Italy.
This could be the first thing that foreigners complain or think about Italians – their noise. For non-Italians, every day is a surprise whenever the streets are filled with locals chatting, yelling, singing, playing, talking on the phone, and driving while furiously honking their horns.
The nuisance is added by the sounds from your apartment neighbors that go through the thin walls and floors that makes every TV show they’re watching and every piano piece they’re playing audible.
However, noise can be too much too for the locals that it caused someone to get in jail for reasons like noisy intimacy and committing murder on “noisy” neighbors. Despite these outrages, Italy continues to be known as a lively country surrounded by different sounds from day to night.
2. Meal Courses
Don’t expect to eat only from one plate during lunch (sometimes though, it’s okay to buy one and even share a plate depending on the region or restaurant). There will be at least three courses in a traditional Italian meal, which can be a bit awkward for some foreigners.
The menu consists of antipasti – starter dishes like a slice of salami or marinated vegetables; primi piatti – starches like gnocchi, risotto, or pasta; secondi piatti – the main or meat course, with or without contorno – a vegetable side dish; dolce – desserts like tiramisu, panna cotta, or gelato; and beverages – from sparkling water to espresso.
It’s weird for some to eat pasta first without the meat and side dishes because the primi piatti and secondi piatti can’t be eaten together.
3. Nothing Savory for Breakfast
Italians don’t eat eggs, ham, and bacon for breakfast which puzzles some tourists. A typical Italian breakfast which they call “prima colazione” or simply “colazione”, consists of one hot drink like caffè latte, cappuccino, hot chocolate, or black tea together with bread, toast, brioche, croissants, biscotti, or cakes.
Colaziones are usually done in “bars” (different from the typical American bar) that serve coffee and baked goods to people who want a quick breakfast before going to work or school. If you’re in Italy and eager to have savory breakfast, eating in the hotel is your best choice.
4. Mad Hand Movements
Italy won’t be Italy without Italians, and Italians won’t be Italians without their hand gestures. People are quite entertained to see the locals talking at the piazza telling stories in full expression with their hands moving here and there.
The language of Italian gestures was inherited from the Greeks who moved to southern Italy to colonize Naples. The Italians during that time used gestures to communicate without being heard and it became a tradition that still exists in every Italian blood.
Excellent? Bring your fingers together and kiss them. Not giving any %@*#s? Brush the back of your fingers lightly upward from your neck past the tip of your chin.
5. Devotion to Family
Italians are known for their close family ties, their love for children, and care for the elderly. Foreigners quickly notice that Italians will put their family first before everything, It’s not a shame for unmarried Italians to stay with their parents until they have their own family.
In addition, kids are free to do whatever they want in public. They are tolerated and welcomed in restaurants even though they just run around, touch random things, or throw tantrums – and it’s all because they’re part of the family. Strict generational walls don’t exist in Italy unlike in other cultures.
6. Road Rage
Think twice before renting a car in Italy and make sure that you’re capable enough to drive along with the crazy yet skillful Italian drivers. Yes, they get too close, they’ll cut you off, and they’ll sometimes ignore traffic signs. These are completely normal in Italy and if these things scare you, forget about driving.
Moreover, Italians have been always ranked as Europe’s worst drivers in surveys. If you’ve decided to drive, just be confident and remember this Italian saying: “You watch your front, let everyone else watch your back” because this is how they live on the road.
7. Lack of Personal Space
Italy lacks (or never had) this thing they call personal space. They consider it polite to be close to someone while talking and it isn’t awkward to talk while touching your hands and arms. Hugs and kisses aren’t considered eyebrow-raising when done in public.
In public transportations, they won’t mind if you sit right next to them even if there are seats available; or stand behind them that you can already feel and hear their breathing; or even sit on an occupied seat which is only meant for a single occupant. Don’t misjudge an Italian’s way of socializing as making sexual advances.
8. Afternoon Store Closings
You plan to buy something and it’s 2 in the afternoon. You notice the stores are closed, the same as the store you plan to visit. You’ll think that the store owners or staff are on a “siesta” but this is not the case if you’re in Italy (especially in rural areas).
They’re just closed, usually from 12:30 pm to 3:30 pm. They don’t usually take naps in these hours. They go home, cook, eat, and rest a little before they go back to work. In busy cities where no one can bother to go home to cook, there are restaurants that offer lunch menus.
When in Italy, forget about Starbucks for a while and have your caffeine fix in a “bar”. Don’t confuse these Italian bars as a place that’ll serve you alcoholic cocktails. You enter a bar, find the cassa (register), pay, join the queue, and order your coffee.
You’ll notice that most of the people are standing up while drinking their coffee, but then you might be used to taking that cup to your desired table and sip it while you sit and just let time pass by. Either way of drinking coffee is fine, just be ready to take out more cash when you choose to be seated.
There are many things about the coffee culture in Italy you should take note of such as: not using the word espresso and ordering “un caffè” instead; not ordering cappuccinos after 11 am; and ordering a latte means you want a glass of tepid milk.
10. Slow Life
One thing that foreigners, especially from the busiest cities around the world, notice about Italy is the way that Italians take things slowly. Slow-food is a way of life. Dinners can last for three hours. To-go food is considered hard to find unless you’re in a touristy city.
And remember not to be easily frustrated in meetings because it’s acceptable for Italians to be late for an appointment. In other words, Italians live in the present. Do you agree?
Cameron is a travel writer, a nomad, a wanderer, a wonderer, a gypsy, homeless. He loves being on the road always on a mission to explore the unexplored destinations.