What to expect when you visit the Land of Pizza, Pasta and Wine
As with any country, Italy has its fair share of stereotypes portrayed across the media and popular culture. Images of Vespas, women sipping espressos in roadside cafes and abundant plates of pasta permeate the guidebooks and vacation catalogues. But is this really what you can expect when you visit Italy? As an ex-pat living in Italy for the past 3 years I have tried to summarize the things which have struck me most about Italian culture, in the hope that when you arrive for your vacation you are more prepared than I was! Of course one of the beauties of travel is really getting to grips with another culture. What better way to do so than in the company of a local private guide?
Getting around in Italy
Does everybody in Italy really own a Vespa? Are the drivers really as temperamental as the movies depict? What about public transport?
Ok so not everybody owns a Vespa (although you will certainly see your fair share of them) but scooters or motorino are everywhere you go. Literally. You will often find them parked, or even driving along, the pavement. Did you know, you only have to be 14 to drive one!
The drivers really are as crazy as you heard. This is not just a stereotype; in my experience it’s very true! You’ll be fine as long as you start from the premise that no ‘rules of the road’ that you take for granted in your home country exist! Of course they exist, but 9/10 times aren’t respected. So take extra caution especially when crossing roads- pedestrian crossings don’t mean stop for vehicles. At most they mean ‘free parking space’ or ‘speed up to try to squash the unsuspecting tourist taking their time crossing the street!’
Should you risk taking public transport during your stay in Italy? Yes- if you’re feeling adventurous! Some public transport in Italy isn’t so bad. The high-speed trains that connect lots of the main cities are actually very nice, safe and efficient. Public transport varies from city to city but usually the buses, metros and trams aren’t the most reliable- so allow plenty of time if you plan to use them to get around. That said, they do usually get you there in the end. In 3 years I’ve been on two buses that have broken down before reaching my desired destination and I take public transport everyday- so not such a bad average?! One word you will soon learn if you travel by public transport over a prolonged period is sciopero- meaning strike. In a bad period public transport goes on strike once a week for a day. But they do usually supply a guaranteed service in the mornings and evenings to allow people to get to work and back…
Food and drink
Food is incredibly important to the Italians- on both a national and regional level. So when you come to Italy you really can expect to eat pasta, pizza, gelato and all the other Italian classics. Italians are so protective of their food heritage that it is often hard to find something non-Italian to eat! Italy still hasn’t fully embraced the explosion of international cuisine present in many other Western countries. In the bigger cities, such as Milan and Rome, one can easily find Sushi, Chinese food, hamburgers etc. Head into the smaller towns and you are unlikely to come across this.
Many Italians genuinely do eat pasta once a day. I have Italian friends who say they start to get withdrawal if they go two straight days without pasta! Pizza is also to be found everywhere you go but it does vary depending where you are in Italy. Pizza by the slice in Rome for example is usually cut out of a big square pizza, whereas in Tuscany you are more likely to be given a triangular piece cut out of a traditional round pizza. The consistency changes too. Why not make it your mission to try a slice of pizza in every city you visit and take notes on the difference?
Gelato really is something the Italians take very seriously. You will find every flavor under the sun. Just be careful when mixing your flavors. I have often asked for an unacceptable mix and been give some very odd looks- chocolate and strawberry is ok, chocolate and coffee is ok, strawberry and coffee is not.
Wine is certainly acceptable to drink with both lunch and dinner. If you ask for the Vino della Casa (House Wine) it will normally be fairly drinkable. During your stay in Italy why not visit a winery for a tour and wine tasting. Rome Private Guides can help arrange wine-tastings for you across Italy. Beer is larger, and at most craft beer if you’re in a metropolitan center. Unfortunately for the nostalgic English ex-pat, ale is almost impossible to come across!
Another topic we have already covered in this blog is coffee. Coffee is a very central part of Italian life and you will find bars on every corner. Be prepared to drink many espressos and cappuccino only in the morning if you really want to fit in!
As a culture Italians are very close to their family. If an Italian invites you to go for dinner with their family you can expect not only to meet parents and siblings but also nonna e nonno (the grandparents) aunts, uncles, cousins… These are often noisy encounters with plenty of chat, laughter and yes, a fair few passionate arguments!
On a side note the Italians have a reputation for being loud. This I can confirm! Most of the time the people you overhear shouting in the street probably aren’t arguing, they’re talking! The first thing I notice every time I fly from Rome to London and back is how quiet the airport is in London- and how loud in Rome!
You may have heard of the term mammone to refer to Italians, especially young men, who are mega attached to their mums and live at home into their 30s. In reality many Italians do live with their parents until later than those from other cultures, particularly the UK and US. This is partly due to the difficulty for young people to find work following the economic crisis. But also because Italians often graduate later than those in the UK and the US. It is normal to do a masters degree rather than just a bachelor degree, lasting 5 years total, and often they end up lasting longer than 5 years. When at 23 years old I already had a full time job the response from almost every Italian I spoke to was the same, ‘really? But you’re so young,’ they marveled. Whilst many of my contemporaries in England already owned a house and were married with children!
Top tips for your vacation
It would be impossible to cover all of the ins and outs of Italian Culture in one blog post. And where would the fun be if I left you with no surprises to discover during your vacation in Italy?! Here are just a few bits of information that will help you to feel prepared for your stay in Italy.
Public restrooms aren’t so nice
Have low expectations! In some places the famous ‘hole-in-the-ground’ toilets are still in use. Public bathrooms are few and far between and often you have to pay. It can be well worth buying a coffee or a bottle of water and using the restroom in a bar. Also even restaurants and bars often have only one or two toilets. So allow for queuing time!
Queuing in general is a nightmare
Come armed with lots of patience, as queuing doesn’t really exist in Italy. If you want to make it to the front in this lifetime then you’re best to adopt the Italian method and start pushing and shoving. Shouting and exaggerated gesticulation are an added bonus!
Gesticulation will help you to be understood
In fact the majority of communication in Italian is not verbal but involves a complex mixture of various hand and arm gestures. If you’re having trouble making yourself understood using English or phrasebook Italian, try resorting to gesticulation. You may find you are able to make yourself understood fairly quickly!
Italian culture can certainly seem very ‘foreign’ to the first time visitor but you are bound to fall in love with Italy’s passion and charm. Why not try a private food tour in one of Italy’s many cities, a delicious wine-tasting in Tuscany or Limoncello tasting on the Amalfi Coast? For all its ups and downs, Italian culture is magnetic and is bound to keep you coming back time and time again to discover more!