My wife and I recently enjoyed a trip to Italy. Here are a few general observations, lessons learned, and suggestions if you’re interested in Italian culture or planning a trip of your own.
1. Italians are expressive.
Speak loudly and use hand gestures. Have an opinion. Expression is always welcomed if the situation deserves it, and it does.
2. Can introverts survive Italian culture?
Seemed like Italians spend more of their day at work and out socializing, dining, and drinking. When do they have time to themselves away from the noise of the city? My sense of privacy and introversion probably wouldn’t jive easily with public out and about life all the time.
3. Appearance matters.
Italians have a much higher standard of attire and style. Most people have a cohesive outfit, showing they care about how they present themselves. You won’t see many sweatpants or yoga pants or sloppy T-shirts or baseball caps in public. (Americans, take note.)
4. Drink coffee standing at the bar.
Sitting at a table costs extra. Locals tend to drink morning coffee quickly and get to the rest of their day. You can spot the tourists because they’re the only ones ordering a cappuccino after 11am.
5. Drink a lot. But not that much.
Italians drink during so many parts of the day: lunch, aperitivo, dinner, after dinner. I wonder how the alcoholism rates compare. Some European cultures are much better at handling alcohol without going overboard. Italy seemed like they know how much is enough. Also wonder if non-drinkers have less social opportunities because so much of social life is tied to alcohol and food.
6. La passeggiata is the second best daily ritual.
Passeggiata is the Italian tradition of walking popular streets after the work day and before dinnertime. Between 5-9pm, some businesses close but shops stay open for slowly strolling crowds doing passeggiata. Allegedly an opportune time to flirt and socialize. Personal note: my normal pace is too fast for the locals traipsing around with no particular destination.
7. Aperitivo is the best daily ritual.
This is one thing I’m trying to incorporate into more of my days. During la passeggiata between 5-9pm, people may find a piazza or a cafe and grab a seat for a couple hours. To unwind from the day and meet up with friends or family, they order apertivi: think happy hour, but classier and better. Order a cocktail (or two, or three) and you get a few complimentary snacks. The better cafes and bars offer better snacks, like bruschetta or mini-pizza-like pastries. Favorite drinks: Negroni, Aperol Spritz, Campari Spritz, beer, or wine. After aperitivo, time for dinner.
8. So many Italians smoke.
Walking the streets, hanging out in piazzas, everywhere. Whenever I smell certain cigarettes, it takes me back to European squares and outdoor cafes. Smoking makes people look cool in Europe. Smoking in the United States makes people look stupid. Can’t explain it; it’s just true.
9. Driving is rarer and largely unnecessary.
Unless you’re staying in the countryside or going up into the Alps, public transportation will be just fine. Plus parking in big cities and medieval towns can be a chore, and you’ll have to walk anyway. Driving in cities is hectic and you’ll need to drive defensively and aggressively if you want to get anywhere. Watch for limited traffic zones and come with large fines. On the plus side, since less people drive, the ones who do are much better than drivers in the U.S. Example: you know how road signs say “Slower traffic keep right” on highways? Italians actually do that, only using the left lane when passing. *swoon*
10. Expect to walk. A lot.
Walking everywhere is the way to go. Especially in cities and towns where cars are limited. However, people do not follow the walk-on-the-right-side principle. Prepare to weave through lots of crowds.
11. Cross the street decisively.
Even if there’s traffic. Italians don’t like hesitance. Make up your mind and go for it.
12. More Italian adults seemed fit or healthier than average.
Very few were overweight compared to other nationalities. Is it because of all the walking, even while eating lots of carbs and fats? Not so much for the children, though, who are supposedly some of the most obese in the world.
13. The train system is huge and overwhelming.
Always check the monitors, then check them again. Your train number might have a different destination city listed than your ticket says (because your destination is one of the stops before the final destination). Have your bags ready and hop off immediately at your stop.
14. Busses are packed and smelly.
But it was probably me. Expect to be crowded and to stand for most or all of the bus ride. Make your way to the exit doors before the bus stops at your destination. They don’t wait for long, so jump off as soon as you can, before onboarding passengers block your way.
15. Air conditioning is rare.
Some lodging won’t even have an AC unit because they’re a luxury or for newer apartments. Even saw some places charge extra for use of AC.
16. Italian showers are small.
If the bathroom includes a shower at all.
17. Bidets are not bad.
Most lodging we stayed in had a bidet right next to the toilet. When in Rome…
18. Pay with cash often
Paying with a credit card usually means a deadpan look from the cashier. Yeah, cashier, it may take 5-15 seconds longer than a cash transaction because the satellite connection is slow, but you’ll be fine.
19. Tourist photographers are the worst.
Never have I ever been so hypocritically perturbed with tourists who spend more time taking pictures of art than actually observing it. Please don’t be one of the tourists with a selfie stick. Or taking a picture of a plaque instead of reading it. What in the world are you going to do with that photo?
20. Of course, take lots of photos.
You want to remember your experience, right? While I scoffed at the tourist photographers, I admit I found my new life calling: visiting museums of world class art and give reimagined, irreverent captions.
21. Learn at least a little about art.
Italian museums have incredible, world-famous collections. Even if you’re not an art buff, expand your horizons and gain appreciation for culturally significant pieces of history. Something I learned: A theme of Renaissance artists seemed to be that if you can’t see beauty everywhere on earth, you won’t be able to see any spiritual beauty beyond earth.
“My eyes love things that are fair,
And my soul for salvation cries.
But neither will to heaven rise
Unless the sight of beauty lifts them there.”
— attributed to Michelangelo
22. Italian security seems way more sensible.
Basic customs check and airport security screening that didn’t take long. After returning to US, we had to exit, pick up checked baggage, recheck baggage, and go through security again—hours. (Yes, this is privileged first-world complaining—but why is security so much more redundant in the U.S.? Are we really that much safer?)
23. Social media is great. Less time on it is better.
After spending 2 weeks off news, Facebook, Twitter, and all but travel itinerary emails, I’m unsubscribing from lots and putting tighter limit on social media time. What did I really miss? Life offline is way more refreshing and sustainable. A lot less mental clutter and more ability to be present in simple joys of the moment.
Have you traveled to Italy? What tips or observations would you share?