It’s come to my attention that expectations often shape our experiences and reactions. For instance, Drew has certain airline expectations because he has Gold Status on US Airways. He’s used to boarding the plane first, going through the special security line, lounge access during layovers and so on. So, when we fly an airline that is NOT a partner airline, Drew’s expectations of how customers are treated is at one level, and the customer service received is at a different one. It’s true that certain expectations can lead to disappointment, and as I’ve noticed in my 20-something years, this extends to all areas of life.
That’s why Drew and I have decided that we’d like all our readers, friends and family to know what the life and culture is here in Italia, especially since we’ve already had 7 rounds of guests here at Casa di Maul! We’ve lived together here in the Veneto (a northern region of Italy) for 10.5 months since our wedding in July 2013. Drew, however, has lived in Toscana and the Veneto, making his Italian living experience total 5.5 years. Here are all of the differences that will help you shape your expectations while traveling in Italia:
The main language here in Italia is, of course, Italian. If you have studied Italian, you will be able to communicate in Italian, but you may also notice that each region has its own dialect. Therefore, if you TRYING to understand what people are saying, but you cannot, do not despair! They are usually speaking too quickly for a non-native speaker, and they also may be using words in the dialect. If you have not studied Italian, don’t worry! There is a lot of English spoken in Italy and a lot of people are willing to speak. If they are NOT willing to speak English with you, this is not a sign of arrogance, but maybe that they are shy to speak a foreign language and they do not want to seem uneducated. With all of this in mind, it’s a very good idea to learn several basic words in Italian. “Please”, “thank you”, “hello”, “goodbye”, “excuse me”, and “Toilets,” are all good words to memorize. I guess we’ll have another blog post to write about that!
Business Timings (Non-Restaurants)
Business timings are very counter to American culture, so try to keep the following in mind:
- Openings: It is very normal for businesses to open in the morning only by 9am, some small ones by 10am. Many business DO open by 8am, but you cannot have this expectation for ALL businesses, otherwise, you will be disappointed.
- Riposo: MOST businesses take several hours in the middle of the day to close, similar to the siesta hour in Spain. This is not for napping, but usually so people can enjoy their lunch. The riposo hour usually begins at 12:30pm, and can last until 3-4:30pm. Basically, if you have an errand or store that you want to go to, don’t expect to go there between 12:30-4:30pm. I will say that this was one of the most difficult things for me to get used to after living in a big cosmopolitan city like Kiev! It will be frustrating, at times maddening, but the best thing to do is keep this timing in mind, and understand that it’s the way things are; things will not change for you, so you may as well enjoy life during the riposo time!
- Closings: Businesses normally close between 7:30-8:30, but usually by 8pm. Since a lot of businesses have opened later than the American hour, and taken between 2-4 hours off, this can make it difficult to visit all of the stores on your errand list. Again, this is the way things are. Accept it, prioritize when things are open, and enjoy life!
Meal Etiquette and Timings
- Breakfast (Colazione): For Italians, breakfast is a coffee and a brioche or croissant. If you are staying in a small B&B, this may be all that breakfast is.
- Coffee: One normal American response to the coffee here is that it is too small and does not last. That’s because it’s not drip coffee, but espresso. You can also order “decaffinato”, which is decaf espresso, and is what Drew and I do since we’ve eliminated caffeine from our diets. Below is a description of coffees that you may want to order:
- Cappuccino: This is the most famous and popular drink with Americans because it is the most like American coffee. Basically, steamed milk with espresso. There is an etiquette about proper cappuccino times: You may order it in the morning until 11am, and again between 5-6pm (only during that time if you’re sitting in the bar, not standing there). It is NOT considered an after-meal drink. If you order a cappuccino during the off time, it will still be made for you, but the barista won’t be happy and everyone in the bar will know you’re a foreigner (if they don’t already).
- Cafe: Espresso shot.
- Decaffinato: Decaf Espresso shot.
- Macchiato: Espresso with a little bit of steamed milk.
- Cafe Corretto: For after a meal, this is an espresso shot with a shot of a digestive liquor. Maul favorite is “Cafe corretto decaffinato con sambucca” which is decaf espresso and licorice flavored liquor.
- Going to a Coffee Bar: If you stand at the bar, you will (usually) need to order and pay at the cash register first, then take your receipt to the barista and tell him/her what you ordered. S/he will then tear your receipt and make your drink. If you want to sit down in the cafe, the price of your drink will double because you will need to pay a coperto (cover charge). This is one reason that people don’t “go out for coffee” and make it a 3-hour experience. (Another obvious one being that if you go out and order an espresso, you can finish it in 15 seconds, so why make this the way to catch up with friends?!)
- A Bar is the title of a place that serves coffee as well as liquor, which is why you see so many of them! No, Italians are NOT alcoholics, and tend to drink less than Americans.
- Lunch (Pranzo): This is generally the biggest meal of the day and will include a primi (first plate), secondi (second plate), contorni (side plates) or insalata (salad), wine and water. Of course, you don’t have to order all of that, but if you are lucky enough to stumble upon a local place that has a menu fisso (fixed menu) for Italian workers, you can get ALL of that for 10-12 euros! Lunch times happen between 12:30-2:30. If you show up at 12pm, you’ll be the first ones there. Primi piatti (first plates) are pastas, risottos, gnocchis. Secondi piatti (second plates) are meat and fish dishes.
- Aperitivo (Pre-dinner drink/aperitif): Apperitivo hour can happen between 11am-1pm and 4:30-8pm. If you are in the habit of inviting people out for coffee, this will be a good alternative for you. This is basically the time that you can go for prosecco (fizzy white wine), aperolspritz (Maul favorite), campari, or another bitter mixed drink. Go to a piazza (square) wherever you are, order an aperitivo with friends and watch the world unfold! It is customary for the server to bring potato chips and/or other munchies so that you won’t be drinking on an empty stomach.
- Dinner (Cena): Dinner time lasts between 8-11pm. Going out right at 8pm means you will be the first ones in the restaurant. Going to a restaurant before 8pm means that you may be walking in on the staff dinner. Dinner has all of the plates mentioned at lunch, plus antipasti (appetizers). Dinner is generally more expensive than lunch depending on where you will go, so it may not be in your budget to eat all of the courses.
- Coperto (Cover Charge): All restaurants charge a coperto, usually per head. If you sit down in a coffee bar, or any restaurant, you will be charged a coperto. The fee covers the bread and the table for the whole evening. Basically, you are paying to sit there all evening or as long as you want, without being bothered, and without anyone wanting to turn your table.
- Wait Staff: European and especially Italian wait staff members define good service by taking your order, bringing you your drinks and food as it is ready, and allowing you to be leisurely and enjoy your meal. They will not be super-bubbly and come to your table every 5 minutes to ask if everything is ok, which is considered rude here. If you want to super-bubbly experience, find the most touristy restaurant in whatever town you’re in. You will have a great experience, but the food will be anywhere from mediocre to just plain horrible. If you want an authentic experience, don’t expect to receive American-style service!
Dress and Decorum Expectations
Italians are stereotypically stylish. In this fashion season, that means that they’ve brought back their high-tops, skinny jeans, nikes, and t-shirts. Yes, when you come here, you will see that all teenagers look exactly like their American counter-parts, only trimmer and with tighter versions of the clothes. It can be easy to feel as though you will need to dress up while in Italy because people generally dress better here. What I would encourage you to do is to aim for dressy-casual with 1-2 dressier options, if only touring. Italians LOVE American style, but with their own unique spin on it. Levis jeans and nike shoes are in and coveted, but they are sported in dressier ways. Italians tend to wear dark-rinse jeans that run on the skinny/less baggy side.
Part of Italian culture is “fare la bella figura” which means to make a good impression. Of course, a lot of that can extend to clothing, but this Italian phrase also speaks about demeanor. Americans are notoriously known for being loud and obnoxious over here. If you are walking down the street and speaking English, do so in a quiet voice, and try to be courteous and say a few words in Italian when interacting with locals. This will show your character more than the clothes you are wearing.
Italy’s favorite sport is cycling. You can see avid cyclists on all roads. If cycling is your thing, this is a great country for you to find yourself in!
Italians love to “fare una passegiata” which means to go for a walk. You can see people out and about at all hours of the day. Whether young, old, children, child-less, friends, or family members, this is one of the favorite past times. To me, it is one of the most endearing things about the country, to see people enjoying nature, enjoying company and being active, all in one activity. I recommend walking around a city-center on a holiday to people watch and observe this delightful practice.
August and Holidays
As in France, August is the designated holiday month here in Italy. Remember the instructions about riposo? August is like an entire month of riposo! Don’t expect anything to happen during the month of August. I once heard a joke that if you have an emergency, it’s better to have it occur on Christmas day rather than to happen in August!
August is VERY hot. There is not a lot of air conditioning in Italy. If you want to visit Italy, August is not the best month at all. If you do find yourself in Italy in August, try to make the best of it and go places during their advertised August hours and make sure to stay hydrated!
In terms of other religious (Catholic) and other public holidays, Italians love to be around friends and be out and about in a relaxed manner. If you happen to find yourself in Italy on a public holiday, it is a great time to watch how well Italians know how to relax, and try to see if you can emulate their relaxed state!
If you need pharmacies or grocery stores on a holiday, you will have slim-picking for openings, which is why it will be better to do your research and know what is going on before you come.
Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed Alicia’s perspective on expectations in Italy. The best travelers are those who do so with an open mind, ready to experience what the culture has to offer. Travel lightly with few expectations, other than to expect to have a great time, and any location, especially Italy, will be an experience which transcends normal!