Things You Should Know Before Moving to Italy
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the faux pas you can commit in Italy revolve around the dinner table. This in itself speaks volumes of the Italian culture: food is king and meal times are special events not to be hurried or skipped. Especially not dinner time. The most resounding advice from expats is to respect the ways of your new neighbours and to try to avoid making constant references back to how things are done in your home country. Italians don’t queue and things can take their time to get done, so roll with it. You’re in Italy now, so ‘when in Rome…’
Pronto and prego
Get used to hearing and speaking these words in Italy. Italians answer the phone by saying ‘prego’ and shopkeepers will say it to you when you step through the door as a helpful greeting. It means a mixture of ‘hello’, ‘yes’, ‘I’m listening’ and ‘how can I help?’ You’ll hear it everywhere, and sometimes it sounds harsher than it’s meant. ‘Prego,’ means ‘you’re welcome’, or ‘no problem.’ Two ways to start sounding like a local before you’ve mastered the language fully.
Flowers, chocolates and wine serve as great gifts for hosts in Italy, though beware that Chrysanthemums are a funeral flower in Italy, and red or white roses are overtly romantic.
Meal times and food etiquette
Like most of their European neighbours, Italians eat their dinner later than we do, generally speaking. You won’t get served dinner anywhere before 7pm in Italy – it’d probably be classed as a late lunch – and many restaurants operate a tourists’ dinner seating at 7pm, and one for locals at 9pm. Eating whilst walking is a massive no-no in Italy, as is impatience in restaurants, and elbows on tables. Waiters will never bring the bill before being asked in Italian restaurants, so ask for it when you’re ready or you’ll be in for a long wait. Eating cheese with a fish dish is another big taboo in Italian cuisine, so don’t ask for parmesan for your seafood linguine unless you want some funny looks from your new Italian pals. And milky coffee (latte, cappuccino, macchiato) is purely a breakfast thing for Italians, contrary to popular belief. Never sip coffee with a meal. One last tip: never put ketchup on your pasta in Italy. This is the biggest culinary insult you could ever deliver a host or a restaurateur. As if you would.
Make an effort
Sorry to break it to you, but Italians don’t nip out on a Sunday morning for a newspaper and a packet of bacon in their jogging bottoms and a grubby t-shirt. Ever. Whether you’re breakfasting in a hotel (a hostel, even) or popping out in the car to fill up with petrol, get dressed properly, have a shave and brush your hair. Or rather, slum it at your peril. This cliché is 100% real: Italians are immaculate. Old ladies out doing their weekday shopping in Firenze? Totally chic. Teenagers kicking around street corners in Siena after school? Straight out of a Gap Kids advert. If you don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb in Italy, make an effort with your general appearance.
Bring your own peanut butter … they don’t sell it here.
Pucker up (men as well)
Kissing is big in Italy. On meeting a group of friends (or acquaintances) be prepared to spend five minutes kissing everyone. We’re not talking about planting a wet smacker on the lips and face (this would scare people) but delicate ‘air kisses’ on each cheek, first left, then right.
Men from countries where a stiff handshake is the manly greeting might be shocked that Italian men kiss and hug each other and can often be seen linking arms while walking along together (they do draw the line at full hand-holding). Physical affection between men is very natural in Italy and you will have to get over any reservations you have about it quickly if you want to make friends.
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Living with mamma
According to the Eurofound think tank, 79% of Italians live at home with their parents until they are thirty (and beyond). Leaving home to share an apartment with others is rare in Italy and most young people go to university in their home town. As well as strong family ties, the culture of living with parents is also associated with extremely high youth employment, low and declining fertility and low migration rates.
This side of Italian culture may come as a shock to expats from countries where it’s traditional to snip the apron strings at 18. You may find yourself sharing with other expats; so it’s a good idea to get out and socialise with Italians whenever you can.
The aperitivo hour
The pre-dinner Italian aperitivo hour is perhaps one of the most civilised customs in the world. It can be compared to tapas in Spain or an after-work pint in a pub in the UK, but it’s so much more than a swift beer and a battle through traffic. Taking an aperitivo is a chance to unwind in style after a hard day.
What you eat and drink during this hour (usually between 7-8pm) varies from region to region. Head to any piazza and you will find effortlessly stylish Italians gathering in bars, sipping either Campari, Aperol or a cold glass of Prosecco. Some bars offer a few olives and nuts to go with your drink and some offer a full spread of impeccably prepared stuzzichini(nibbles).
You might raise a few eyebrows if you down copious amounts of Campari and pile your plate high in an all-you-can-eat-buffet-style though. The aperitivo hour is all about sipping, taking delicate bites and conversation.
La Passegiata (evening promenade)
Known as the ‘most Italian time of the day,’ La Passegiata is where Italians throw on their best threads and head out into village, town and city to ‘vedere e farsi vedere’ (see and be seen). Essentially la Passegiata involves meeting up for gelato, a walk about and a chat while looking really good. It’s taken very seriously, with whole families stepping out in their best gear on a Sunday.
Joining La Passegiata is a great way to meet Italians and soak up the culture. Just remember: iron your shirt, comb your hair and absolutely NO jogging bottoms if you want to fit in…
Lovers not fighters – advice for women
Italian men live up to their Lothario reputation and foreign women in particular may find that men will try it on with exasperating insistence. This attention will usually come in the form of whistles, cat-like noises and inventive compliments and is, by and large, harmless. The best way to deal with unwanted attention is to ignore it or failing that, say you are waiting for a ‘fidanzato’ (boyfriend) or ‘marito’ (husband).
As with any other country, women living in Italy should take extra care when travelling/walking alone and always leave a bar or club with a friend.
Although it has improved in recent years, much of Italian TV consists of badly-dubbed over soaps, game shows complete with over-tanned host, armies of scantily-clad women and endless, endless chat shows. The RAI network is the biggest broadcaster and is paid for by a public licence fee and advertising. Fewer adverts means that the programming on RAI is of a slightly better quality than elsewhere. Italians have a much better reputation in film-making, with ‘La Vita e Bella’ and ‘Il Postino’ among the greats.
Watching TV and films in Italian is a great way to improve your language skills so it’s worth over-looking the cheese and getting stuck in.
Dolce Fare Niente (Sweet Doing Nothing)
Despite offensive stereotypes; Italians are not lazy. But outside Rome and Milan life runs at a slower pace than what some expats are used to. Dinners can be six-hour long affairs and getting to places in a large group can sometimes take a frustratingly long time. However, many expats say that the slower pace of life in Italy is what attracted them to the country and, let’s face it, taking time to enjoy food and conversation can never be a bad thing.
One unwelcome side effect of Italy’s laid back attitude is the notorious bureaucracy, which is especially bad in public services. This can be particularly disheartening for expats applying for residence permits etc. The only advice is to make sure you have all the right documents, adopt a ‘go-with-the-flow’ attitude and hope for the best.
Football = life
Italian men, women and children alike live and breathe football with a fervour that verges on fanaticism. It’s not unknown for whole towns to completely shut down if their team is playing an important game. A great way to get into the spirit of Italian football is to go to a game (partita) where you will find fans dressed in their team colours and a whole lot of noise.
Italians don’t associate football with alcohol and you will rarely see drunk people at a match. And although they are passionate about their teams, this almost never breaks out into violence and hooliganism. Chanting, heated discussion and wild gesticulation is what you are more likely to find in the stadium and piazza.
There is no other country quite like Italy and most expats fall irrevocably in love with it after a few months. Italians are generous, warm and funny and living among them is an unforgettable experience.
Despite the current economic problems and slow-moving bureaucracy, Italy offers a life surrounded by art, stunning scenery, breath-taking architecture, and of course a love of food that infiltrates all aspects of life. Once you are settled in Italy, you may never leave. Just remember to pack the peanut butter….they don’t have it here.