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Fun Things to Know about Italian Culture

Sometimes, as an expat living in Tuscany, I realize that I have been here so long that things just seem normal. Until I get visitors, and I find myself explaining bits and pieces to them so they understand what just happened.

Here are a few of those things that have worked their way into my everyday life - but to a traveller from abroad, may seem a world away from what they are used to doing or seeing.

Eating

You could write a book (and someone probably already has) about the cultural nuances about eating in Italy. 

»  The bar (cafe & pastry shop) is the morning hang out place for the Italians, normally it’s quick and sweet; an espresso (always ordered as a “cafe” and not an espresso), a quick exchange of “hi, how are ya’s” and then via. And. Yes. They call them bars and not cafes - and yes, sometimes they call the pastries a pasta...not to be confused with the other type of pasta.

»  Though it might have been the norm to spend an entire evening at a restaurant (because there was no rush to get you out the door for the next guest to come in and take your place), you will find that in the bigger cities like Florence they are now a bit more insistent. However, it is the norm that if you don’t ask for the check, it doesn’t just appear. Sometimes it feels like it will NEVER appear that’s when I get up, grab my stuff, and just head over to the cash register/exit...that get’s their attention!

»  Times are changing, for example you can now get ice with your coke. Even if the Italians normally don’t put ice in any of  their drinks (especially their wine….eye roll on my part). I love it when my friends beg for ice, and the waiter concedes as if it were platinum, AND then they come back with a very small bowl with a few very small (melting) cubes.

»  The Italian aperitivo or apricena is the American equivalent to Happy Hour - and all you can eat buffets. Don’t expect a main course, but there are enough munchies that you can do dinner and a drink for under €10.

»  Bread is just flour, yeast and water in Tuscany -  no salt, that's just the way it is. And when you go into a restaurant, it is rarely multi-flavour, and sometimes they just give you crackers or grissini, absolutely no butter and no olive oil with balsamic vinegar dips. The only time you can expect them to offer olive oil when they serve the bread is if they just got the fresh pressed oil in November. Otherwise you need to ask...and while you’re asking for the olive oil, ask for a plate, they don’t do that either.

Olive oil in the restaurant in Tuscany

»  There is a big movement for KMZero which means sourcing from close by. The biggest result is seeing more and more purified water in the restaurants as opposed to commercially bottled water, however, it still isn't free.

»  Sorry James Bond, no “shaken not stirred” here. I you want a Martini you need to specify a Martini Cocktail, or better yet American styled Martini. And even then I would ask what they are putting in it, just to be sure.

»  When sitting down to the table with Italians, after you have put your napkin on your lap, but before you take the first taste, you always wish everyone else a "Bon apetito" (enjoy your meal.)  If you aren't the first to get it out, then you respond "Altre tanto" which means: right back atcha'.

» Common courtsey normally requires that everyone is served their food before you dig in but, a cold pasta dish is just not acceptable.  So, if you are served first (and it is a hot dish) you are encouraged to eat up right away...remember "Bon Apetito," even if it is just you eating.

Just to know

»  Instinct will have you pulling to get in a door and pushing to get out...but it is the exact opposite in Italy. You probably won’t even realize it at first - after 24 years, I am still doing the pull / push hustle to get in the door. Love those electric sliding doors!

»  I know by now that the Tuscan’s are gun shy of giving you too much information about local events, so if you want to know what the local events are then you need to keep a look out for the street billboards and multicolor fluorescent signs for “Feste” or “Sagre”, the last are street fairs usually dedicated to one food.

»  With the advent of technology, and being able to get everything online, tourists probably don’t do the wide and wild search for The Herald Tribune Newspaper anymore, but if they did, they would go to the “Edicole” (Italian for newspaper stand), and it as much a part of the typical Italian morning routine as stopping to the bar to order a cafe.

»  Not that you will be watching much Italian television (in fact I encourage you not to watch ANY Italian television) but if you do...don’t be surprised by the rather risque material - mainly in the form of half dressed young ladies as well as an abundance of soccer, mafia TV shows and Formula Uno / Motorcycle racing.

»  Europeans generally have very little concept of “personal space,” which probably explains why the lines at the post office, communion at church or placing an order at the bar are barely definable. No need to argue, they will normally back down if you are politely assertive.  They don't do it to cheat you out of your space, it just comes natural.

»  Chrysanthemums (also known as mums), are colorful and pretty flowers, but they are used exclusively for a cemetery visit. Don’t give these to anyone, especially your mother in law or girlfriend... just saying…

giving flowers in Tuscany

»  Unbelievable, but this is one habit I have brought home with me, it just feels weird not to do it (and even more weird when I do...because no one knows what I am talking about). After you knock on the door, and have been ushered into the house/room, Italians will still normally ask permission to be allowed in by saying “Permesso”.

»  Finally, if you get the wonderful opportunity to actually be invited to an Italian’s house then (first) remember what I said above and (second) ALWAYS bring something...even if they insist you don’t need to bring anything. A bottle of wine is always acceptable (no screw tops please) … a dish of pastries, flowers (not chrysanthemums ) or chocolates are good runner ups.

If you are still in the planning stages of your holiday, then check out some of our practical information to know before you travel.  Already in Tuscany and can't find the phone number you need for assistance? Click here for a quick look at emergency phone numbers, taxi, airports and embassies.


Author: Donna Scharnagl

It has been over 24 years since I took my first steps in Italy and I still haven’t found a good reason to leave.  Between the food, the culture, the history, the art, the landscapes … did I mention the food? I have become a lifelong student. And I soon learned that Italians all have stories that long to be told; stories that paint a picture of how hard work produces character, how life is made of ups and downs and how good it feels to laugh.



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