Culture Shock You Might Experience on Your Trip to Italy

Even though I am a native of Italy, I sometimes experience moments of culture shock when I return home. In many aspects, the life of Il Bel Paese is very different than the one I’ve grown accustomed to 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! Below is a partial list of cases 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 yourself!

Personal Space 

I’ll add this as the first key point of culture shock as it might seem as the most intrusive. Italy’s version of “personal space” is much closer than what we appreciate in the States. When in line at the grocery store or the cafe, don’t be too surprised to find the next customer practically on top of you. Italians also aren’t shy about asking personal questions; more than once, you might ask, “Did we not just meet?” The same applies to friendly kissing on the cheek when greeting someone, even if meeting for the first time. 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 go to a family gathering, get up at least a half hour before your scheduled departure; you’ll be kissing folks for a good bit.

La Bella Figura

The literal translation of this term is the beautiful figure. What this means is wanting to impress someone or putting up a good appearance. Italians are proud folks, and this term refers beyond outward appearances, though that’s certainly part of it. It’s the housewife cooking up a feast for a little get-together, the clothes always pressed before an outing, and the poise 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 grocery shopping or running to the post office. The afternoon passeggiata, or stroll, is the perfect time for this to come to life. You might assume everyone is headed to a get-together when it’s just time for their post-nap walk.

Welldressed man in Italy
The sunglasses, the man purse, the pressed shirt – yes, he clearly got the memo on how to put up a “Bella figura.”

The Afternoon Nap

Speaking of, the afternoon nap in Italy is not reserved just for kids. This is especially true in southern Italy. 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 

Italians eat dinner pretty late. This might take some getting used to if you typically enjoy dinner at 6:00PM. At that time, folks are enjoying an aperetivo, returning to work, or cleaning up around the house. Most restaurants don’t serve dinner until at least 7:30PM, and that’s at the earliest. Be cautious of any restaurant open all afternoon, or that serves dinner at 6:00PM, it’s a sure way of identifying a restaurant that caters to tourists. The food here may be less than optimal.

It’s what time?? I’m usually in bed by now!

Summer Vacation

The entire country is on vacation in August. Unlike the States, where one might wonder if their employer approves a vacation request, it’s pretty much a given that the entire country shuts down for the month. Many travelers head to the country’s southern portion for its beautiful beaches and spicy food. Some travel elsewhere, but wherever they might be, it will likely not be in the office.

beachgoers in Italy
It seems everyone is on vacation!

No Sense of Urgency 

Oh, how Italians march to the beat of their drum! Italians live life as if they have all the time in the world. Lines move slowly, appointments are rarely kept at 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 are relatively unheard of in Italy. Of course, 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 check Facebook for a while while waiting. They have a saying: Piano Piano. No, that’s not the musical instrument you play; it means: Slow, Slow! Everything is piano, piano in Italy! 

The Man Purse

If you’ve never been to Italy or Europe, this one will shock you. Every man, from the lawyer to the farmer to everyone in between, carries a pocketbook. They might not call them such, but that’s what they are! They vary in size, some small enough to hold 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 won’t find a man without one.

men wearing the man purse in Florence
It’s hip to carry a man purse! Picture by frompointAto

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 carry these delicious goodies and serve them with cappuccino or espresso, and children and adults alike devour these like they’re going out of business. And I can attest that nothing beats the smell of freshly baked cornetti from coffee shops in the early morning. So go with it and don’t fight 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; you’ll thank me later. Now this is one aspect of Italian culture shock I highly encourage!

morning breakfast in italy
The breakfast of champions in Italy: Cappuccino and cornetti!

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. But, 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.

Sometimes doing nothing, just sitting back and taking in the view is all you need.

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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What to Pack for Italy

Cosa Mettere in Valigia per l'Italia

Everyone is always asking me what they should pack for Italy,
so I’ve created a quick reference guide that you can use for your next trip.

Hint: You don’t need nearly as much as you think you do!

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