I have meant to write a post on the things that might be a “puzzling surprise” for people travelling to Italy for a while, and then this interesting thread on the Slow Travel Forum finally gave me the excuse to sit down and write about it. Actually, it all started with this other thread, where someone reported how she had met some people who had hated Italy because they couldn’t watch basketball and because the bacon at breakfast wasn’t cooked enough. This generated a long series of responses, some got upset, the thread was closed (something that always surprises me, even if it shouldn’t by now… dear God people… can’t you put up with a little criticism!? It must be a cultural thing… in Italy we do say whatever we feel in these situations), but that is beside the point.
I thought it might be nice to comment on a few things that I read, because it’s always useful to get a different perspective on things, so that you know what you can tell your guests before they arrive so that they can be ready for what life in Tuscany (and in most cases, Italy in general) is really like. So here is a list of the most popular disorienting experiences for travelers to Italy.
- Italy is big and there are more things to see and do than most people can conceive of. Tuscany is also big. Seeing the whole country or even only Tuscany in a week, or two or three is simply impossible. There is nothing else to it. To people used to living in large countries where you need 5 hours to drive between two major cities, distances might seem small, but roads are slow, and the density of sites to see even within 30km is huge, and in every major destination (e.g. Florence, Rome, Venice, etc.) there is enough to keep you busy for well over a week. Getting on a tour that take you to 10 cities in 14 days will be tiring, stressful and for many unsatisfactory. My recommendation is to pick a base, and visit the surrounding area, driving for max. 1 hour to reach your destination. Time will fly.
- Food is different from what you are used to, even to Italian food that you find at home. First of all, every part of the country has its own regional specialties and cooking style. Most of the Italian restaurants abroad refer to the culinary tradition of southern Italy. You won’t find spaghetti with meatballs in Tuscany, and probably not anywhere else either; fettuccine alfredo is not an Italian dish at all; pasta is mixed with sauce as soon as it’s taken out of the water and before being served (some will find the sauce is scarce – we don’t overdo it with the condiments); you won’t be served a bowl of olive oil with bread to dunk in it, it’s just not done; you can order everything at the same time, but you will be served according to the standard order of Italian courses (antipasti, primi, secondi and contorni, dessert, coffee); salad is not an antipasto but a side dish we eat with secondi and soup is not an antipasto but a first course that substitutes a pasta dish; you don’t have to eat a full 4 course meal every time: it’s perfectly normal to order simply one or two courses; in most places you will be charged between 1 and 4 euros called “pane e coperto“ (bread and tableware) but it is actually a service charge and it has nothing to do with bread; water is not free of charge; cappuccino is not normally served after a meal (it’s a meal on its own and it is usually breakfast food) but in more touristy places they are used to tourists ordering it after lunch; pizza will be thinner than what you are used to, and it does not come with chicken, corn or pineapple on top; in most places you won’t be served lunch before 12.30pm or dinner before 7.30 pm; the table is yours for the night so don’t expect somebody to come check on you every 10 minutes, to see how you’re doing or to bring the bill unless you asked because it’s just not done: waiters don’t want to disturb customers while they are eating and a little pause between courses in considered polite; you can share food, just ask for a second plate; in most restaurants you won’t find an English menu; if you see pictures of what you are about to eat, run away: it says frozen food; unless it’s specified on the menu, ingredients will be fresh and not frozen; you won’t find food that is not in season: neither in restaurants nor in supermarkets; kind of sadly, you won’t also find much variety in terms of regional cooking (in Tuscany you will find mostly Tuscan food) or ethnic food (only in larger cities will you find Chinese restaurants, kebab and maybe Indian or Mexican food); bacon is, alas, impossible to find, so are cheddar cheese, bagels, cheesecake, meat pies, salad dressings other than olive oil and vinegar, white vinegar and chicken wings; doggie bags don’t exist (taking leftovers home is considered very rude); many restaurants now accept dogs (ask before you go): if they have outdoor tables there is no need to even ask.
UPDATE FROM THE COMMENTS
When ordering an entrée (secondo) it doesn’t automatically come with side dishes. When you ask for a steak, you don’t get your “choice of fries, salad, baked potato or rice”. If you want fries or a salad (never rice) you have to order it separately, it comes on a separate plate, and it shows up as a separate item on the bill. Depending on the restaurant, your side dish may not even arrive at the same time as your entrée. Better restaurants will strive to time everything so that all the dishes of everyone at the table are ready at about the same time, but many others where they just don’t stick to that rule. If a dish is hot and ready, send it out, whether or not the fries are done yet. Better to get the fries later than to leave the steak under a heat lamp for five minutes.
NEW UPDATE FROM THE COMMENTS
If you ask for pizza perpperoni, you will get pizza with bell peppers. If what you are after is pizza with spicey cured meats, that’s what you have to ask for: pizza al salamino piccante.
- Not all bars charge extra to bring your coffee to the table, only the ones in the most touristy spots. It is perfectly acceptable to get your coffee at the bar and then sit down and it costs the same in most places. Some places ask for you to pay before you order.
- Getting around can be a challenge. Driving is much simpler than people say: do your own thing and ignore what other people are doing. People do not respect safety distances between vehicles, so expect to have someone stuck to your bumper; in no case though is it acceptable to pass on the right, not even on the few three lane highways; road numbers marked on maps mean nothing most of the time: roads are rarely marked with the highway number but instead have signs indicating the name of destinations in the directions you want to head; most of the time street names are not marked, and when they are it’s often on plaques on buildings: be prepared to ask; even numbers are on one side of the street and odd numbers on the other; some cities like Florence have a double numbering system: numbers in one color are residential numbers and in another are commercial number so you can have the same civic number twice on the same street, once for a private residence and once for a store; most city centers are closed to non-residential traffic: you will be fined if you drive past the cameras at the entrance of the ZTL (Limited Traffic Zones) and they are marked, you have to know what to look for; ZTLs are not a scam to squeeze more money out of tourists: they are a fundamental survival tool for residents of city centers and fines are given out to local and foreign drivers alike; if you are from a non-EU country road signs are different: make sure you learn them before driving in Italy; there won’t be any signs in English: neither on the road nor in most minor train and bus stations; taxi service outside the major cities does not exist and if you get a cab to take you to your hotel 30km outside the city it will be very very expensive; cabs have fixed fares between major landmarks (e.g. from the airport to the train station): ask before getting in the cab what the fare is and make sure you are on a licensed cab (they must have their license number clearly marked on the car); rural areas are not well served by public transportation: if you want to be in the countryside you need to rent a car or be miserable; expect to be stopped by cops for a random check: it means nothing, they just have to do it. Bus and train tickets need to be purchased before boarding: you can buy bus tickets at any tobacconist’s. You need to validate tickets: there are yellow machines on the platforms in train stations and validating machines on the buses themselves. If you don’t you will be fined.
- Most shops and churches will be closed between lunchtime and 4pm: people go home for lunch; most shops will also be closed on Monday morning, or on Wednesday afternoon (groceries).
- Information you find in guidebooks and even on the doors of shops and museums may not be valid anymore: it takes forever for people to update their schedules, even if they have in fact changed. In general everything is open between 9am and 12.30pm and 4pm and 7.30pm.
- We use the metric system: distances are in meters & kilometers, weight is in kilos and grams. Don’t expect people to have any clue when you use miles or pounds: they won’t. Also, gas is measured in liters and not gallons. Temperatures are in Celsius degrees.
- Drinking fountains and public restrooms are very rare. What locals do is to go to a bar, buy a little something (a coffee, a packet of chewing gums, a bottle of water) and ask to use the restroom. Alternatively most large stores like Coin, Upim, Standa etc. and shopping malls will have public bathrooms, so will train stations (you might need a few coins to get in, so always keep some 50 cent and 1 euro coins on you). Take advantage of restrooms in restaurants and museums. Most public restrooms will not be as clean as those you might be used at home (but they will have full doors and walls…): toilet paper is a luxury, always keep a packet of Kleenex in your pocket. Some tourists are horrified by “bagno alla turca”, which is essentially a hole in the ground. They are quickly disappearing: I can’t remember the last time I saw one in Tuscany. The new laws require for any public place to have a restroom that disabled clients can also use, and it is certainly not the case of a hole in the ground.
- Some places might be dirtier than others: graffiti is unfortunately a common thing in some cities and so is dog poop and litter on the sidewalks. Controls are becoming stricter, so cities are becoming cleaner. If you travel with your dog, you need to have a little bag with you.
- You need to have some form of identification on you at all times: if authorities ask to see your documents you need to show them; if the hotel asks for your passport details it’s not because they want to steal your identity… we are required by law to communicate to the local authorities the personal details of any guests we have.
- Don’t expect everybody to speak English. Most people don’t.
- If you rent a place, you should be aware that usually showers (and bathrooms) are smaller in size that what you are used to and water pressure is low. Standard bed sizes are 160cm x 200cm for a double bed and 80cm x 200cm for a single bed. There are other less common sizes now too, but these are the standard “matrimoniale” and “singolo”. Some hotels will have two single beds pushed together instead of one large mattress. Washing machines take forever to complete a cycle (up to two hours) and driers are very uncommon: we hang our laundry outside. Older buildings won’t have powerful electrical systems, so if you plug more than one appliance at the time the circuit breaker might trip: remember to ask the rental owner where it is and how you restore power. Voltage is 220, and there are several types of plugs. Make sure you have a travel adaptor for your appliances and that they can actually be used in Italy.
- The customer is not always right and having to wait to be served is normal. If the shop assistant believes you are wrong you will get a piece of his or her mind. Annoying but that’s how it is. Returning things because you have changed your mind might be your right, in theory, but in practice most people won’t give back your money. Most will offer store credit instead. Credit cards are widely accepted but some smaller places won’t take them. Bars usually don’t take credit cards.
- People skip the line all the time. It’s infuriating for the locals as well (I hate it) but expect the occasional older lady just to get in front of you because she is older, or a group of kids to get in front of you at the train station or to get on the bus. We are not good at queuing and you might end up seeing some good fights. LOL
- Time is an approximation… (I am very guilty of this). If an Italian gives you an appointment for 3pm expect him/her to show up any time between 3 and 3.15 pm. 15 minutes late is still on time!
- We usually don’t tip. Tipping is becoming more and more common in restaurants, but usually we never leave more than 2 to 5 euros, no matter what the total is. We rarely tip in bars (I never ever do), taxis, hotels, shops. Taxes are included in the prices you see on the shelf, so that’s what you will pay at the cash.
- If you are lucky enough to mix and mingle with the locals and to be able to participate in some discussion, don’t be afraid to speak your mind. We are used to saying what we think about anything. The concept of politically correct is is an alien concept and the idea of privacy is completely different here. We tend to get personal, we talk freely about religion, politics, social issues and personal beliefs. We speak in a loud voice and often interrupt each other: it might not be polite, but listening in silence until the other person has finished is something you see rarely and some people say they feel uncomfortable not getting any feedback when they talk (that would be me too). Waiting time between turns of speech is short: if you want to say something jump right in. Also we tend to rephrase the same concept over and over even if we have already stated a fact: it’s just a rhetoric thing… we don’t assume you are dumb!
- Banter and irony are common: don’t get upset, it’s our way to make friends.
- We dress according to the season, not the weather. Feel free to wear what you want, but don’t get upset if people look at you with a funny face if you wear a tank top in April. Most people will still have their coats on even if it is 20°C outside, stupid but so.
- It is not normal, and I would like to underline, NOT, if men comment on you when you walk by, whistle, pinch your butt, call you names, or whatever, not matter what ridiculous romantic comedies want to make you believe. Do not expect or accept to be treated with less respect than you would at home. Sane Italian men will look at you (eyes are for looking at beautiful things) but they will keep to themselves: avoid those who don’t and that will keep you out of trouble. Do not use any less judgment than you would if you were back home: weirdos are everywhere, but there is no way that is normal, acceptable behaviour in Italy, not unless you are visiting an underdeveloped area which is stuck in the 50′s and even there, there is some respect to be taught.
- UPDATE FROM THE COMMENTS: Italian homes are kept cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer than what you are used to. If you’re here in the summer, be prepared for the heat. If you’re coming in the colder months, bring extra sweaters and expect to wear them all the time. Energy prices are much higher here and it costs a lot to run the air conditioner all day, or to heat the house enough so that you can walk around indoors in a t-shirt and shorts in the winter. Many places keep heating or air conditioning charges separate from the room charge for just that reason. Make sure that you know whether heating or air conditioning is included in the price and if not how they plan to charge for it. Some places charge a fixed rate per day, others read the meter at check-in and check-out which can result in some very nasty surprises if you’ve had the temperature set to icebox/sauna all week.
- UPDATE FROM THE COMMENTS: Tap water is safe to drink everywhere in Italy. This is not Mexico, nor India. Drinking a glass of tap water will not result in you spending the rest of your vacation in the bathroom.
Anything else that you think I should add? Suggestions are very welcome!
Have fun on your next trip to Italy!