If Only I Would Have Known….. faux pas in Italy

By Lily Sokolowski, API Peer Mentor for Florence

Just bat your eyes and flash a smile,” she told me. Not exactly the departing words of wisdom I was expecting, particularly from my mother. Now, I must say, I had no intent of following her advice as the means of adjusting to my new host country. But as it turns out, it didn’t much matter.

I thought it was just a polite gesture; a head nod accompanied by a slight smile to acknowledge a stranger’s presence when passing opposite ways on the street. Better to be a little friendly than cold or awkward, right? Wrong. It just so happens that eye contact longer than three seconds is equivalent to “hey handsome!” In other words, it’s considered flirting! So you can imagine how unsettling it was when I discovered the old men in Italy aren’t really as friendly as I had previously thought! So to prevent this particular “crisis moment” from happening to you, just remember: if you don’t want to say heyyy, look away!

But let’s say you do make friends with a local, under normal circumstances of course, and arrange to meet again. It’s well known that the Italian’s enjoy a much slower pace of life and have a bit of a reputation for being late. So you can probably count on your new friend showing up about ten to fifteen minutes after the designated time; this is perfectly normal. However, if you decide to take part in this aspect of the Italian culture, don’t get too carried away. Although it’s appropriate to be 15 minutes late, being 30 minutes late is considered rude.

I found that this line between politeness and rudeness was especially ambiguous in the dining arena. Social etiquette changes depending on the food being eaten; in one instance you’re expected to use certain utensils, in others if you don’t eat with your hands its insulting! In these circumstances it’s best to take your cues from those around you or ask that new local friend of yours how it’s done. Remember that the “traditional” Italian restaurants back home in America, aren’t as traditional as we would like to believe. So when the waiter brings you a loaf of bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, don’t immediately start to reproduce your last meal at Johnny Carino’s. The oil and vinegar are meant to serve as the salad dressing, while the bread is to be eaten with later courses. If you’ve done this and gotten stares from the other customers, you can disregard the first piece of advice; they aren’t trying to flirt with you, they probably just think you’re a little strange!

It’s common for students abroad to stand out, especially during the first phase of adjustment. Many vendors take advantage of this and prey on that mix of excitement and initial gullibility. Next thing you know you’ve paid six euros for one gelato. Nonetheless, you’ve become addicted to that sweet nectar. No worries. I have good news for you! There’s a gelato shop on Via Faenza near one of the LdM sites that has gelato for one euro.

So whether it’s learning how to fuel your new addiction on a budget or figuring out which behaviors are socially appropriate, adjusting to your new host country takes time. We all go in with preconceived notions of what’s normal. However, it’s accepting these assumptions as facts that will put us in danger of becoming blind to reality. So remember to keep your eyes just as open as your mind to learn all you can; just don’t keep them peeled in one direction for longer than three seconds…

Lily studied with API in Florence, Italy at Lorenzo de’Medici – The Italian International Institute. She is currently serving as an API Peer Mentor while attending Texas Woman’s University.

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  1. Ah yes, the Faenza gelateria is a good one – I’d also recommend Perche No! on Via dei Tavolini. That was one of my faves. 🙂

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