What I learned in Italy
After three weeks of touring Italy, I decided to jot some notes down on the things I learned. Some of these are tips, some are surprises. I’ve broken it down into daily life, transport, food/dining, and comments about the U.S. that we heard from Italian friends and co-workers.
- How many things can the word “prego” mean? It’s so much more than just “you’re welcome.”
- The acceptance that daily Italian life will have its hiccups (like a train strike). You should just go with the flow.
- Air conditioning: What’s that? Italy is a very energy-conscious country. And many Italians just don’t like air conditioning. Many smaller hotels will not have A/C and it’s actually against the law to use the A/C outside of peak summer. Same goes for heating in the winter. Either dress light or bundle up (depending on time of year)!
- No screens in windows. Open them up and let the fresh air (and bugs!) in. Which brings me to my next point…
- Vape: No, not like smoking. It’s pronounced with the accent on the e at the end: va-PAY. It’s kind of like a Glade plug-in freshener that has a scent to repel mosquitos and bugs when you have the windows open. Works some (or most) of the time.
- How Italians perceive each of the regions. Sort of like how we make stereotypes in the U.S. of people from California, Texas, etc.: “Florentines are stuck up” or “No one knows how to run anything in Rome!” or “The Milanese are only concerned about money.” These are some of the comments I heard (or overheard!).
- Public restrooms: Sometimes there is no lid on the toilet seat. The first time it happened I was in Boboli Gardens and I thought it was a one-off. But then again at the the train station, a museum, even a restaurant or two.
- Clothing/Fashion: Everyone dresses up. Even in 90 Fahrenheit summer heat in Florence, there were guys in business suits pacing the streets and women dressed to the nines riding their bicycles.
- Italians want to help you. They are friendly. But YOU need to at least make an effort to use some Italian words. Respect their culture.
- Yes, everyone says “allora” (used as a filler during conversation, like the word well).
- Trains usually do run on time (that was one of Mussolini’s things). There are occasional train strikes, but they are usually published ahead of time and you can often at least catch a train headed in the direction you need to go.
- I love the fast trains! Florence to Milan in 2 hrs at 186mph (300km/h). Yes, please! Imagine if we had hi-speed rail between Milwaukee and Chicago.
- Touring Tuscan hillside wineries? Venturing into the Dolomites? OK, rent a car. In a city center? Ditch the car…it’s a hassle. Walk!
- It’s not other pedestrians you have to watch out for–It’s dodging scooters and bicycles that can be dangerous! Look all ways before crossing the street as direction of the traffic often changes.
- Traffic lights merely seem to be a suggestion.
- Gelato: Avoid places where you can see the gelato from the store front window. Especially if the gelato is molded into a mountain-like form. Although eye-appealing, it’s usually old. Go to a place where you have to step inside to see the gelato. My favorite flavor? I love frutti di bosco (literally “fruit of the forest”)—it’s mixed berry.
- Spaghetti with meatballs doesn’t exist. If it’s on a menu, it’s to appeal to American tastes. Avoid.
- Alfredo sauce doesn’t exist. Don’t ask for it. One of the American students asked about it and one of the Italian educators had no idea what the student was talking about.
- Spaghetti Bolognese: Nope. There is a Bolognese sauce – ragu alla Bolognese – but it would never be served with spaghetti, but a broader pasta like tagliatelle or pappardelle.
- Breadsticks on every table? Nope. In Florence, I wasn’t served breadsticks even once. You will however, be served fresh Italian bread which you can drizzle with olive oil and/or balsalmic.
- Menus will often be divided into “primi” (pasta, gnochi, risotto) and “secondi” (main meat dishes). You don’t have to order both. You can pick one. I often did so I could save room for gelato!
- Granita: Everyone talks about gelato, but since it was above 90F almost every day while I was in Italy, I preferred a granita—it’s kind of like an Italian slushie.
- Coperto: Often added to a bill when you sit at a table at a restaurant. It’s a cover charge.
- Slow service in restaurants. It’s the Italian way. You should be conversing with your friends and family anyway!
- No tipping. Yeah!
- Wait staff in restaurants – my experience only: A few nice service workers, but mostly indifferent.
- When you are ready to leave the restaurant, just say “il conto, per favore” (the bill, please) and you can settle. Otherwise you will wait…and wait…and wait.
- Each region will have its favorite pasta shapes. Ask the staff what they would eat!
About the U.S.
- Comment from an Italian we were working with: “Why do Americans drink so much?”
- “Why do you work so much?“
- They think everyone in the U.S. owns guns.
- They were hesitant to ask about Trump because they knew we would bring up their man Berlusconi (Trump Italian-style).
- For some reason, Italian TV channels seem to carry nothing bus NCIS, Rizzoli & Isles, The Bold and the Beautiful, and CSI…often dubbed into Italian!