Without question, Italy is one of the most fascinating, diverse and welcoming countries in Europe. Nevertheless, while the people are extraordinarily friendly, there will be occasions when adherence to cultural traditions and norms will be expected, though some of these traditions and norms might be unknown to students from abroad. It isn’t easy to immediately adjust to the habits of an foreign population, and even the most open-minded among us will commit an occasional faux-pas while living in a different country.
If you want to study abroad in Italy, you might want to be cognizant of the subtle social differences between Italians and Americans (even Italian-Americans). Here are a few mistakes that even the most sophisticated travelers occasionally make.
1. Not knowing the coffee culture
Americans love drinking their caffè lattes, mochas and Frappuccinos while spending the afternoon tapping away on their mobile devices at the local coffee bar. In Italy, coffee consumption is a quick, unadorned ritual, where patrons down their caffès (which are considered espressos in the U.S.) quickly, while standing at the bar (table service is more expensive). Cappuccinos are only drunk at breakfast. If you want a coffee drink, don’t order a latte, which is a glass of coffee-less milk. Order a caffè latte, and you’ll get an espresso shot in hot milk, likely served in a glass. Also, caffè latte is considered a dessert beverage, and very few offer flavored options (the addition of chocolate, vanilla or caramel syrup), or soy or skim milk.
If you’re hankering for a cup of drip coffee, order a caffè Americano, which is espresso diluted with hot water. If that is still too strong, try a caffè lungo, which has a higher water-to-espresso ratio. You’ll also want to specify to the barista if your order is to go, because it is generally assumed that the caffè will be drunk on-site.
2. Wearing inappropriate clothing in the cathedrals
Dress codes in churches and cathedrals are generally quite strict, although some are more rigidly enforced than others. In general, no bare shoulders, plunging necklines, or the exposure of legs above the knee allowed.
3. Dining out every night
Studying abroad can be an expensive proposition if you’re not careful. If you want to sample the legendarily fabulous cuisine of Italy without blowing your food budget, enjoy it at lunchtime, which is typically far more reasonably priced than dinner. You can also picnic very cheaply by buying seasonal fruits and vegetables, along with the locally made breads and cured meats.
4. Over reliance on TripAdvisor
Crowd-sourced review sites can be helpful tools when you’re looking for a specific service or resource, but planning excursions based entirely upon TripAdvisor reviews can limit your experience of the country significantly. Ask the locals what they do – they’re more capable of helping you discover the real little gems.
5. Failing to validate train tickets
Make sure you’re well acquainted with the regulations before attempting to use public transportation – you’ll spare yourself fines and missed appointments. If your passage doesn’t have assigned seating and specific times, use one of the validation kiosks to get your ticket stamped before boarding your train. The validation stamp is only good for six hours, however.
6. Buying contraband items from street vendors
Don’t be tempted by the sometimes fairly convincing designer fakes pedaled by street vendors. Some are decent quality – many aren’t. However, the main reason why you should avoid street vendors who sell “designer” items is the possibility that they have been illegally obtained. If the authorities catch you buying illegal or counterfeit items from an illegal vendor, you may be fined thousands of euros.
7. Touching the produce with your bare hands
In Italian groceries and markets, touching the produce is discouraged, partly for hygienic reasons, but mainly because it’s simply considered rude. All of the fruits and vegetables are displayed with great care, and rifling through the arrangements of peppers, tomatoes, squash and eggplant gives the impression that the vendor is attempting to conceal or disguise inferior products.
8. Not carrying cash
Not every retailer is equipped to accept credit cards, and a great many only accept credit cards above a certain monetary value. It’s safer to have some cash on hand.
9. Throwing away receipts
In the U.S., receipts are generally only a necessity when you want to return purchased items. In Italy however, the authorities may ask to see your receipts after you’ve left the retailer, to ensure the purchases are legitimate and the appropriate sales taxes have been paid.
10. Expecting the cuisine to be what you’ve had at home
Fettuccini alfredo with chicken or caesar salads might be Italian-influenced, but they aren’t standard fare on Italian menus. Other foods that Italians don’t recognize as being Italian? Italian submarine sandwiches, garlic bread and chicken parmesan. Also, pasta isn’t a side dish – it’s a course.
ISEP Study Abroad is a non-profit organization that offers a wide variety of programs for students wishing to study abroad in Italy. From financial assistance to help adjusting to the host university, ISEP provides students with comprehensive guidance in all aspects of international education. To learn more about our diverse study abroad options, please visit our search page to find the best program for you.
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