I admit that even though I am a native of Italy, I sometimes experience moments of culture shock when I return there. In many aspects, the life of Il Bel Paese is very different than the one I've grown accustomed to here in the States. This made me wonder how a first time visitor might react in certain situations, if even this native has moments of culture shock! The below is just a partial list of situations you might encounter during your trip to Italy. These might leave you wondering what the Italians are thinking, or perhaps, wishing you could adopt the same methods here in the States!
Personal Space: Italy’s version of personal space is much, shall we say, closer than what we appreciate here in the States. This takes some getting used to, even for me. When in line at the grocery store or at the cafes, don’t be too surprised to find the next customer practically on top of you. This is their norm, take no offense. Italians also aren’t shy about asking personal questions; more than once you might find yourself asking, “Did we not just meet?” The same applies for the friendly kissing on the cheek when greeting someone, even if meeting for the first time. Actually perhaps more so if you’re meeting for the first time! It’s right cheek, left cheek and back to the right! Bottom line, if you’re getting ready to leave a family gathering, just get up at least a half hour before your scheduled departure, you’ll be kissing folks for a good bit.
La Bella Figure: The literal translation of this term is the beautiful figure. What this really means is the wanting to impress someone, or putting up a good appearance. Italians are proud folks and this term refers beyond outwards appearances, though that’s certainly part of it. It’s the housewife cooking up a feast for just a little get together, the clothes always pressed before an outing, their poise in which they carry themselves. It’s putting your best foot forward in everything you do. This is evident even when taking care of seemingly inconsequential activities, like going grocery shopping or running to the post office. The afternoon passeggiata, or stroll, is the perfect timing for this to come to life. You might assume everyone is headed to a get-together when in fact, it’s just time for their post-nap walk.
The Afternoon Nap: Speaking of, the afternoon nap in Italy is not reserved just for kids. In fact, most shops and businesses close from noon or 1:00pm to about 4:00pm or 5:00pm. Everyone goes home for a nice, leisurely lunch, which usually lasts at least one hour, then it’s time for a pisolino. Workers then return to work for a few hours before closing around 7:00pm to enjoy dinner. If you’re visiting Italy, particularly in the summer, you should also reserve the afternoon for some rest, as you might be sorely disappointed if you decide to head somewhere and find it closed!
Late Dining: The afternoon nap is likely a contributor to the late dining phenomenon that is prominent in Italy. Dinnertime in Italy is rarely before 8:00PM, in fact, it’s later than that in the summer months. If you’re headed to a restaurant, best to wait until at least 7:30 or 8:00pm, the staff might wonder what you’re doing there before that. Or they might assume that you’re there for a late lunch. Enjoy an afternoon gelato upon waking from your nap and during your passeggiata; it will tide you over until dinner.
Summer Vacation: It appears that just about the entire country is on vacation in August. Unlike the States, where one might wonder if a vacation request will be granted from their employer, it’s pretty much a given that the entire country shuts down for the month. Many travelers head to the Southern portion of the country, for the beautiful beaches and to enjoy its spicy food. Some travel elsewhere, but wherever they might be, it will likely not be in the office.
No Sense of Urgency: Oh how Italians march to a beat of their own drum! Italians live life as if they have all the time in the world. Lines move slowly, appointments are rarely kept true to their agreed upon time, a meal is a one-hour ordeal, at the minimum, and the hustle and bustle that we’re accustomed to here in the States is relatively unheard of in Italy. This could be a blessing or a curse, depending on the situation. But if you have the misfortune of having to visit the post office or a bank in the summer months, pack your patience. A full cell phone battery might also help; you’ll be checking Facebook for a while during your wait. They have a saying: Piano Piano. No, that's not the musical instrument you play, it means: Slow, Slow! Everything is done Piano Piano!
The Man Purse: If you’ve never been to Italy or Europe, this one will shock you indeed. Every man, from the lawyer to the farmer to everyone in between, carries a pocketbook. They might not call them such, but that’s essentially what they are! They vary in size, some small enough to just carry a pack of cigarettes and car keys, to larger ones that downright compete with the size of a woman’s purse. But I’ll dare you an espresso that you’re not going to find a man without one.
Cornetti, Cakes & Cookies: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, or so we’re told here in the US! In Italy, the preferred breakfast consists of Cornetti, preferably warm and cream filled, (though similar, they’re not to be confused with the French croissant), with cakes or cookies as close seconds. The cafes are filled with these delicious goodies served with cappuccino or espresso and children and adults alike devour these like they’re going to out of business. And I can attest that nothing beats the smell of freshly baked cornetti coming from coffee shops in the early morning hours. Just go with it and don’t flight it, there’s plenty of time to eat toast and jam or cold cereal when you return home. I highly suggest the hazelnut cream-filled one, like the one I had below, you’ll thank me later.
Il Dolce Far Niente! Oh the sweetness of doing nothing! We’re not used to that here in America. It makes us feel unproductive if we’re not stressed, or running late to another meeting. Frankly, Italians enjoy doing nothing. They’ve mastered enjoying life, sitting back and people-watching or as the proverbial saying goes, just stopping to smell the roses, or in their case, the espresso. You’ll end up wondering if they ever actually work. Somehow life still goes on, and it’s a good life indeed.
Although the above situations might make one experience moments of culture shock, I am a firm believer in assimilating to the ways of Italy when visiting. If, after all, we would expect things to be exactly as they are at home, we might as well stay there. Go with the (slow) flow that is Italy, enjoy La Dolce Vita as much as possible when there, this is after all, a vacation, enjoy every moment of it.
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