Like many Americans traveling to Italy, my imagination of Italy and Italians ran wild with romantic images of pin-stripe suit and gold jewelry-clad men, beautiful, feisty stilletto-heeled women, cozy trattorias with slow, romantic accordion music playing in the background and mountains of fresh pasta.
Of course, these are highly stereotypical ideals and not met in reality (except, of course, the mountains of pasta!) Yet, even if you read all the non-stereotype perpetuating literature you can get your hands on, nothing can fully prepare you for being in a new culture entirely. Part of the fun is challenging your own expectations, throwing away your romanticizations, and learning the nitty-gritty details of a place. Part of the fun is also making mistakes as you learn these details.
There is a reason why the quintessential adage of how to behave in a new culture is “When in Rome…” Being the birth of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, and Gucci, Italy is certainly at the epicenter of culture. And, even though I had an immense desire to learn and be a part of the culture, I certainly took a few biffs along the way. Here are a few tips of what NOT to do, so maybe you can have a little head start and spare yourself a bit of embarrassment.
Putting bread on a plate of pasta
It’s true, food is integral in almost every aspect of life in Italy. Food is seeped in tradition and varies widely from region to region. Yet, one no-no I learned quickly, and the hard way, is leave your bread on your main dish. Most restaurants will give you a basket before your meal, but once your plate of pasta comes out, beautiful, hand-made and exquisitely fresh, leave the bread out of it! It is disrespectful to the sauce and pasta. Do it, and risk getting some weird or dirty looks from proud Italians. However, if you have some sauce leftover to dip your bread in-fair game!
Not Eating Every. Single. Bite of my meal
The rituals surrounding food in Italy is unrivaled to any other culture. It is cherished, which is clearly demonstrated by the amount of time and effort put into a single meal. Therefore, when a bite is left unfinished it can be construed as disrespectful. However, even worse for Italians, it could signal you didn’t fully enjoy your meal. Also, “to-go” boxes aren’t a thing in Italy, so you better show up to dinner hungry, or risk offending nonna.
Ordering a cappuccino after 12pm
Nope. Don’t even think about it. As an American, I missed sipping on my >12oz cup of coffee, so I gravitated to the closest thing in Italy: the cappuccino. With a shot of espresso topped with steamed milk, these delightful coffee drinks are only to be consumed for breakfast accompanied with a sweet pastry. Opt instead for a cafe “normale” which you may enjoy at any hour of the day.
Assuming dinner will last under 3 hours…
Were you invited to an Italian dinner event? (Especially for the holidays, birthdays, wedding, etc)? Expect to be there all night. Really, possibly into the A.M. hours. Recently, my boyfriend’s friend had a birthday in a wonderful agriturismo in Tuscany. I knew it would be long, but after 4 courses of crostini, primi, secondi, contorno, digestivo followed by 2 hours of chit-chat, I know I grossly underestimated the energy of an Italian dinner. Brace yourself for raucous Italian banter, random speeches and applause, back-patting, cigarette breaks, and a dinner lasting around 6 hours. It will be a long night, but it will be worth it.
Giving hugs, rather than cheek kisses
When greeting or saying “goodbye” most people (of either gender and including men) will often do a kiss check, starting to the right. I made the mistake to try and give someone a hug parting and it ended up an awkward, flailing mess. Unless you’re very familiar with someone hugs are best avoided. That being said, Italians tend to be less concerned about their personal space “bubble” and don’t mind being very close. A pat on the back, slight hand holding, and arm around the shoulder are much more common and close than many Americans are probably used to.
While this list is generalized and many cultural variations exist throughout the country, I hope it gives you a basic head start if you head out to this beautiful, refined country. And remember, even if you make a few cultural blunders, always maintain your sense of humor. With a pinch of tact, a spoonful of curiosity and a dash of silliness, navigating a new culture will be a piece of cake! (Or canolo). Ciao bella!