27 June 2007
The Complete American's Guide to Travel Abroad in: Italy
Buon giorno, and welcome to Italy! As an American who has been there at least twice, I feel a certain obligation to advise you as to the proper behavior for a visitor to Italy. We have an obligation to maintain our country's level of respect in the world at large, and keep a reputation for being the adaptable, culturally aware citizens of the world that all countries perceive us to be as . . . Americans. Now, I've made every mistake there is to make, so I feel terribly qualified to advise you in your adventure as you prepare to visit a land of wonder, delight and not nearly as much body odor as France. (Or so I hear. I have yet to research A.C.A.G.t.T.A.i.:F. Waiting for some grants to come through...) Let's begin, shall we! Avanti!
First: Don't panic. There's a variety of preparations we, as Americans, feel we need to do before leaving our borders, and most of them don't apply to Italy. You don't, for example, need to apply a Canadian maple leaf to your rucksack, or practice saying "aboot" instead of "about." Italy doesn't care. They can't bring themselves to hate an entire nation for the actions of a few people. They had fascism, after all. Or rather, it had them, and they just kept on eating pasta and waiting for it to blow over. That having been said, do worry about gypsies. Yes: gypsies. I'm serious. A friend of mine had a pair of gypsies approach him at the train station, one shouting to distract while the other got into his fanny pack. When he shouted them off, one of them kicked him in the shins. So even if you have a run-in with a gypsy or two, don't escalate. It will only end in tears. For you.
Second: Avoid unnecessary confusion. For example, when the plane successfully lands in Italy and everyone starts clapping, know that it's not because the plane normally doesn't land successfully. They're just enthusiastic types. If you go with your instincts (for example, to clap when others are clapping) you'll save yourself a lot of hassle. Similarly, don't try too hard to figure out the iconic road signs. Go where arrows point. Avoid red things. If you try to spend time figuring them out, you'll accidentally cut off or run down a moped. This is the most telling sign of Americanism in Italy: Inability to track mopeds in traffic. Give it time. It's like catching a fly with chopsticks.
Third: The waterless, lidless toilet is actually a "bidet." If you pee in it, you'll be okay. If you do anything else, just leave the country. Just go, because explaining that is something you'll never, ever live down.
Fourth: Just because you can get wine with every meal doesn't mean you should right away. You have to train up to that kind of thing, kid. Quarter carafe, half carafe, then the full monty in the midday sun. I haven't looked up the American heat stroke and dehydration case statistics for Roman hospitals, but I know what I'd find.
Fifth: Go ahead and speak the language. The worst you'll get is confused glances, not like in French-land where they interrupt you to avoid any further desecration of their beautiful vernacular (Again: This is just what I hear. I can't back it up. But isn't it only natural for human beings to despise the French, just a little?). In fact, Italians will apologize to you for not speaking your language. In their own country. When was the last time you did that for Miguel, the bag-packer at your local grocery store who actually lives here?
Sixth: If you have to drive, get one of those "cute" little European jobbies. If you get a USA-style vehicle, you will regret it as you try to navigate a road that was originally designed by an Etruscan wheat farmer. Also, be sure to know how to drive stick. Also, friggin' go! It's not that they don't have speed limits, it's just that nobody cares. Don't be that guy (or girl).
Seventh: There is an etiquette to the food, but it's tricky. Italians won't really give a damn if you order red wine with fish (That's the French. [Well it is!]), but don't you go ordering an after-dinner cappuccino. That's strictly a breakfast coffee, and you will be mocked. Relentlessly. I speak from experience. Also, if they don't offer grated cheese, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DON'T REQUEST IT. You may think grated cheese was intended for any pasta under any circumstances, but they do not. I'm still trying to work this one out in detail (look for A.C.A.G.t.T.A.i.:I2 in stores next spring) but for now, just don't ask. Finally, yes: They eat cookies, orange soda and chocolate frosting for breakfast; everything Mom wouldn't let you have. Just go with it.
Eighth: Stop it. Whatever you're doing, just stop it. Chances are it's very uptight and oddly disturbing to the people around you.
Ninth: They will be late, whomever you're meeting. Count on it, and plan to meet in places like bars (which, to an Italian, is like a cafe) or gelaterias so you have something to do, because no matter how late you arrive, the person/people you're meeting will be at least a half an hour later. You are an amateur at this, no matter how chronically late you may think you are. Similarly, avoid making plans, because you will often find that you aren't. They are simply accommodating your bizarre desire to pin down life into time slots.
Tenth: Don't muck about with hand gestures with which you are unfamiliar. In fact, try to avoid gesticulating at all. You may think it makes you appear "more Italian," but you're dealing with a specific and codified language unto itself, and you'll probably end up sticking your foot right in your mouth. Figuratively and literally. I mean, half the Italian insults are hand gestures. Along these lines, be sure to shave under your chin regularly.
Eleventh, and final: Shake out your shoes in the morning. There be scorpions here. SCORPIONS! (Or, as Friend Heather is fond of referring to them: "Aaaaooohhhhohmygodohmygodohmygod!")
Heed my advice, Americani, or face the wrath of becoming exactly the ugly touristi that Italians are too polite to complain about to their faces.
Especially the bit about the toilet.